Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Prosecutor considered patronage charges against Democrats during Fletcher administration

We are hearing that during the Fletcher administration, a local prosecutor considered bringing charges of criminal political patronage against employees of the Cabinet for Health and Family Services and local Democrat leaders in a certain county.

In the end, the prosecutor decided the headaches involved in such a prosecution weren't worth the trouble, but we hear that a certain county attorney was very disgusted at the way Democrats continued to play patronage politics even after a Republican was elected governor.

This situation, we understand, was one of the key arguments administration officials made when they instituted the much-discussed Governor's Personnel Initiative.

The story goes like this: A position came open within CHFS for an administrative assistant in a rural county. A very qualified individual applied for the job, scored very high on the merit system test required for the job, and earned the support of high-placed Republicans and Fletcher backers in two counties, the county where the vacancy existed and the applicant's home county, which was adjacent. This applicant also had the blessing of the governor's constituent services office.

The only problem was, local Democrats and the longstanding Democrat power structure within the mid-level management of CHFS preferred their own candidate. The administration-backed candidate was given an interview, but the job went to the Democrats' preferred applicant. The CHFS employees in charge of the process owed their jobs to the Democrat patronage system that had been in place for years, and that's where their allegiances remained. When local Democrat elected officials and party officials intervened to support their chosen applicant, that's where the CHFS decision-makers sided, realizing who'd buttered their bread for these many years.

The Republicans were upset. One high-ranking Fletcher administration official said, "Well, this didn't turn out the way we wanted it to, but we're going to take steps to make sure stuff like this doesn't keep on happening." Indeed, complaints were flying from all parts of the state that mid-level bureaucrats in many cabinets, in charge of hiring decisions, were continuing to hire Democrats supported by local party big-wigs because they themselves were products of the Democrat patronage system. This is what led to the decision to centralize hiring in what became known as the Personnel Initiative: To end the longstanding system of patronage hiring.

The county attorney, after getting wind of this, seriously considered charging the CHFS managers with violations of KRS 18A, the state's merit system law. The prosecutor knew the vacancy was filled through patronage and not on merit. In the end, though, since the applicant was not a resident of the vacancy where the county occurred, the decision was made not to ruffle local feathers and push a prosecution for patronage. Little did anyone know that a year later, the attorney general himself would be prosecuting patronage allegations for his own political gain and that of his party. In retrospect, we hear, the prosecutor has engaged in a lot of second-guessing for not going forward with the case after all. The reasoning is that this would have exposed the patronage game the entrenched Democrats within state government and local party officials were still playing, and would have justified the Personnel Initiative in the public's mind and blunted the effects of the special grand jury.

This is an interesting cautionary tale, a story of "what-ifs." Perhaps in the future, some local county attorney won't be shy about prosecuting patronage violations when qualified Republicans are passed over for well-connected Democrats in coveted state merit jobs.


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