Eastern Kentucky can't soar while public corruption thrives

At the risk of dampening SOAR's good vibe, we must point out a major obstacle to economic development in Eastern Kentucky that got little to no mention at last week's summit: corruption.

According to the United Nations, "corruption deepens poverty, debases human rights, degrades the environment and derails development (including private sector development) by creating disincentives for investment."

The U.N. observed International Anti-Corruption Day Dec. 9, while in Pikeville 1,700 people rallied under the Shaping Our Appalachian Region banner.

Meanwhile, U.S. prosecutors were unveiling the latest in a long string of criminal charges against Eastern Kentucky officials. Morgan County Judge-Executive Tim Conley pleaded not guilty to federal charges that he exchanged government contracts for kickbacks.

Regardless of how the latest prosecution ends, corruption is not a mountain stereotype or a comic form of local color. It's real, and it impedes investment.

The Herald-Leader's Bill Estep recently cited data from the U.S. Department of Justice showing that from 2002 through 2011, there were 237 public-corruption convictions in the Eastern District of Kentucky compared to 65 in the state's Western District.

Public corruption has abetted a drug abuse epidemic and denied youngsters a decent education. A Manchester pastor told Estep that honest people in Clay County saw no reason to vote until the feds broke up a vote-buying ring.

Ask yourself: What business or bright young person would stake their fortunes or futures on such a place?

Eastern Kentucky is full of honest people. The region is no more bound to be corrupt than it's bound to be poor or dependent on a single extractive industry.

Still, poverty can't be overcome without tackling corruption.

But how? The legislature should require local governments to beef up the ethics codes they were first required to enact in 1996, create some real penalties for violations and make ethics training mandatory for local officials.

Obviously, federal prosecutors and courts and Kentucky's attorney general must be vigilant.

But ethics in government — and business, for that matter — is more than just not doing wrong things.

Ethical government puts the greater good first, makes decisions in an open, accountable way, and invites everyone, including those on the margins, to the table.

Transformations that occur from within are always more successful than those imposed from without. Voters in Eastern Kentucky have the power to make change, provided they're given real choices. Those who care about the region must get busy making sure voters have real choices and honest candidates.

Healthy politics won't divide a community into feuding factions that also stifle development.

Both community and trust are critical to the spread of entrepreneurship, according to a study published this month in the American Sociological Review and summarized by Richard Florida in The Atlantic: "Entrepreneurship of all sorts — from the creative cutting edge, high-tech enterprises to building a small business — is in fact a social process, depending upon teams of people working together and broad social networks. And community itself, the place where entrepreneurial activity happens, is a crucial part of the mix."

A lot of SOAR speakers came close to gigging the elephant in the room. Instead of looking to pave a road where there are 35 votes, Senate President Robert Stivers said, the mind-set should become looking for ways to create 35 jobs.

U.S. Rep. Hal Rogers said that SOAR's real reward might not be the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow but the rainbow itself. That certainly would be true if a new culture of honest, accountable government spreads across the mountains.

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