Op-Ed

Tired of political corruption in Kentucky? Time for citizens to demand better.

A general view of the outside of the Kentucky State Capitol during the General Assembly in Frankfort, Ky., on Tuesday, January 23, 2018.
A general view of the outside of the Kentucky State Capitol during the General Assembly in Frankfort, Ky., on Tuesday, January 23, 2018.

Politics is inherently divisive. In Kentucky, I believe these divisions originate from the historical impropriety of the Commonwealth’s political leadership. However, Kentucky politics has an optics problem today that’s independent of its history: the perception exists that the Commonwealth is currently a corrupt state. It’s a problem that transcends parties. Unfortunately, a myriad of reasons allows us to buy into this perception.

The Thomas Page Affair from the mid-1800s describes how Grant Green, the State Auditor, discovered his predecessor, Thomas Page, manipulated sheriffs to deposit their on-duty collections into Page’s bank. A few years later, James William “Honest Dick” Tate became State Treasurer and possessed a sterling reputation among his colleagues while in office. That is, until he stole nearly $250,000 from the state in 1888 (about $6.5 million today) and apparently disappeared to China. The sordid tales only took off from there; the 19th century established precedence for later misdeeds in Kentucky, where public officials used their positions to improperly enrich themselves and many of their associates.

Notably, despite much-needed ethical reforms under Gov. Bert Combs in the 1950s, the latter part of the 20th century was packed with sketchy behavior, with a particularly fruitful stretch occurring between 1986 and 1991. In 1986, the FBI arrested a former State Police Commissioner, a state judge, a former gubernatorial candidate, a county executive, a sheriff and seven others on charges including conspiracy, extortion, public corruption, insurance fraud, and federal narcotics violations. Beginning in 1987, Gov. Wallace Wilkinson was audited by the Italian Tax Police (after a federal grand jury and an FBI investigation revealed shady overseas business deals), was caught up in the Kentucky Central Insurance scandal (since dubbed “The Kentucky Enron”), and was accused of nepotism (he funneled large state contracts to businesses who donated to his wife’s failed gubernatorial campaign). And then along came Operation BOPTROT: between 1992 and 1995, the FBI convicted 17 individuals associated with the state government (including the Speaker of the House) on charges including bribery, mail fraud, racketeering, extortion, and lying to the FBI to conclude one of the most successful federal crackdowns on state government corruption to date.

After BOPTROT, the new Kentucky Speaker of the House, Joe Clarke, summarized the prevailing narrative of Kentucky politics well: “Things somehow got out of hand.”

Academia and public perception echo Clarke’s description of historically unruly state officials. Studies have found judicial financial disclosure is in this state, despite recent efforts to establish stringent judicial ethical frameworks. And according to research from Harvard University, Indiana University, and the Illinois State University Center for Public Integrity, Kentucky still maintains high levels of both “legal” and “illegal” corruption. These examinations were based on historic evidence and current public perception, which were metrics strong enough to resonate with the FBI’s Louisville Division. That’s because in 2015, the FBI issued a plea citing that Harvard study to tackle public corruption leading up to the 2016 gubernatorial elections.

Regardless of whether public corruption in Kentucky is perceived or actively occurring, one common thread links each case: most Kentucky voters are regular state residents who neither caused nor benefited from public corruption. Yet, as state malfeasance persists, the average Kentucky community suffers most from the actions of a select few. Research suggests corruption negatively influences local economic growth. It tends to reduce public investment, as well as the quality of state services procured and delivered. It also negatively impacts political involvement, undermining belief in democratic legitimacy. Finally, significant evidence suggests corruption imposes costs disproportionately felt by the poor and vulnerable.

As a result, we need support in order to fully participate in our political rights. Today, media rights and the First Amendment are argued about and sometimes infringed upon, but we should actively strengthen our community knowledge bases. This starts with building meaningful relationships with our local media outlets.

Local media possesses the obligation to inform communities about public servants – and their misdeeds. But it’s hard to expose bad guys when the good guys don’t even have a rapport with the press. Relationships between politicians and the media have declined from cynicism to animosity, and communities have suffered from the lack of information. So, if local media informs constituents of corruption, and Frankfort doesn’t make concerted efforts to correct that information, then the public will naturally believe whatever chronicle dominates more. Broadcasting improves government transparency, but it starts with dialogue.

As citizens of the Commonwealth, we need to urge this dialogue. We can participate in local government town halls, observe legislative sessions and gubernatorial debates, organize speaker series, even protest when action is called for, and especially vote. Ultimately, we should demand better from our politicians precisely since Kentucky possesses a scandalous political history. Because an isolated Frankfort is more likely to be a corrupt Frankfort.

Boone Proffitt is a 2018 University of Kentucky graduate. He grew up in Louisville and is now an engineer in Lexington. He is a sixth-generation Kentuckian.

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