Kentucky Statehouse Under a Cloud

Nine current or former members of Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher's Cabinet have been indicted over the administration's hiring practices. The first-term Republican has been subpoenaed to testify at the end of the month.

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Kentucky's governor has been subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury this month. Republican Ernie Fletcher's administration is suspected of violating state hiring laws. Nine people close to the governor have already been indicted. Mr. Fletcher says the investigation is politically motivated. NPR's Adam Hochberg reports from Frankfort.

ADAM HOCHBERG reporting:

When Ernie Fletcher was elected Kentucky's governor two years ago, he claimed the mantle of a reformer, promising to clean up government in a state that's had its share of ethics scandals. But now, Fletcher is surrounded by an ethics cloud of his own. This week as he walked to his car near the capital, he tried to ignore reporters' questions about a growing investigation of his administration's personnel policies.

Governor ERNIE FLETCHER (Republican, Kentucky): Thank you all again. It's great to see you.

Unidentified Man #1: Governor...

Gov. FLETCHER: I appreciate your emphasis on this study. Thank you. I've got to run now. It's been great seeing you.

Unidentified Woman: Do you plan to plead the Fifth, governor?

HOCHBERG: The investigation that has Fletcher on the defensive was launched by Kentucky's Democratic attorney general. He says Fletcher's administration violated a law designed to ensure state employees get hired because of their qualifications, not their politics. Attorney General Greg Stumbo says the administration purged Democrats and hired Republicans to fill rank and file state jobs.

Attorney General GREG STUMBO (Kentucky): There was an intentional plan to preselect individuals based upon their political affiliation, to bring on board a number of Republican activists. And we believe that was a pretty widespread plan.

HOCHBERG: So far, a grand jury has indicted nine of Fletcher's aides and supporters, including his deputy chief of staff and the chairman of the Kentucky Republican Party. Fletcher concedes there were some hiring irregularities when he took office as Kentucky's first Republican governor in 32 years, but speaking to reporters this week at the Kentucky State Fair, he said the problem stopped short of criminal behavior.

Gov. FLETCHER: I can't say that everybody did everything perfect. Nobody can mange 33,000 people without making mistakes or having some of those people make mistakes. But this investigation, when you look at how it's conducted, is very irregular, and I think it's a great injustice to some people who's names have been drug through the mud.

HOCHBERG: The hiring allegations first came to light this spring when whistle-blowers released e-mails documenting apparent administration efforts to find jobs for political supporters. As the inquiry has grown, so has the governor's defiance and anger. He says he hasn't ruled out taking the Fifth Amendment when he testifies August 30th, and he calls the investigation a witch-hunt.

Gov. FLETCHER: This has been a staged media event from the very beginning, and all points towards hypocrisy and a political investigation.

HOCHBERG: Kentucky residents are used to seeing their governors in hot water. Only two years ago, the previous governor, Democrat Paul Patton, admitted doing political favors for his mistress. Still, even with a jaded electorate, political analysts say the current investigation has weakened Governor Fletcher politically. Al Cross teaches at the University of Kentucky.

Mr. AL CROSS (University of Kentucky): In this case, you had a governor who ran on a white horse, cleaning up the mess in Frankfort. So when you run on a white horse, the mud shows up a lot more clearly, and he is held to a higher standard because of that.

Gov. FLETCHER: Good to see you again.

Unidentified Man #2: Hi, governor. How are you?

Gov. FLETCHER: Doing well. You?

Unidentified Man #2: Fine.

HOCHBERG: Governor Fletcher has tried to ignore the controversy when he appears in public. Thursday at the fairgrounds he was all smiles, shaking hands and signing autographs. Fair-goers expressed mixed opinions of his predicament. Paula Thompson, an administrative assistant from London, Kentucky, says the governor is a victim of political dirty tricks.

Ms. PAULA THOMPSON (Administrative Assistant): It doesn't matter who's in the office, you're always going to have that--political accusations, people out there trying to drum things up and just trying to beat a story. And I don't think it's true.

HOCHBERG: But retired computer consultant Mike Farmer is far less trusting of the governor.

Mr. MIKE FARMER (Retired Computer Consultant): I think he has a lot to hide. That's why he's going to plead the Fifth. You know, he could turn loose the evidence if he is innocent, but I don't think he's going to do that because I think it'd show him being guilty.

HOCHBERG: Do you think he's going to survive this?

Mr. FARMER: Oh, yeah, he'll ride it out. I mean, Kentucky politics--they're ingrained.

HOCHBERG: OK.

Mr. FARMER: Weasel and lie their way out of it, as usual.

HOCHBERG: Attorney General Stumbo won't speculate on whether Fletcher himself might be indicted, but Stumbo expects the grand jury to keep meeting into the fall, meaning the hiring controversy could fester for much of the rest of Fletcher's term. Adam Hochberg, NPR News, Frankfort, Kentucky.

SIMON: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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