Director, Commonwealth Policy Center

The Executive Branch Ethics Commission (EBEC) cleared Gov. Bevin of any wrongdoing involving a deal on a home by a campaign donor but considering the way the Louisville Courier-Journal trotted out the story since it broke earlier this year, its uncertain they'll accept the unanimous ruling in Bevin's favor.

A week before the EBEC issued its ruling, a headline in the Louisville Courier-Journal said "Who decides if Matt Bevin's house deal broke ethics rules? A panel mostly appointed by him." Similar stories insinuating that any ruling would be slanted in Bevin's favor appeared in other major news outlets. It's a reasonable suspicion, but the facts and prior history of appointments to the EBEC don't support the headline's conjecture.

For starters, this story ignores the fact that the law requires the Governor to make EBEC appointments.  Since the five members of the Commission serve staggered four-year terms, this means that each governor will have a majority on the Commission at some point. Three of five of the members are now Bevin appointees.

A Louisville Courier-Journal story in 2016 questioned Bevin's executive order "stripping the state attorney general and auditor of their abilities to nominate [EBEC] candidates to the governor." Sounds like a conspiracy to stack the commission but consider the context. Between 1992-2008, Kentucky governors alone made appointments.  In 2008, Gov. Beshear issued an executive order requiring the attorney general and auditor to provide a list of names for him to consider for appointments. Yet, the governor would still make the final decision.

In Beshear's case, appointees would likely be friendly since the attorney general and auditor were of the same party.  Gov. Beshear didn't invite Secretary of State Trey Grayson to provide a list. Of course, Grayson served as a Republican.

The doubt-inducing story in the Courier-Journal cast a shadow on campaign donations EBEC candidates made to the person who would appoint them. They made sure to point out the donation made to Bevin by his most recent EBEC appointment, Tim Kline. Such history may be relevant, but it wasn't an issue pursued by news outlets when former Gov. Beshear made similar appointments.

Current EBEC member William G. Francis, donated a total of $2100 to Beshear in 2007 and 2010. Lewis Paisley, appointed to the EBEC by Beshear in 2012, donated $2,000 to his campaign between 2007-09. Beshear also appointed Richard Master in 2012 who donated $2000 to his campaign in 2007.  There are other examples, but how many news stories were written about these perceived conflicts? None that we could find.

Another critical piece of information on the governor's house deal involved the  appraisal of his Anchorage home which was $1.39 million — nearly $200,000 less than what Bevin paid. Good journalism would have searched this out and reported this in the beginning. It could have saved the paper from spilling a lot of ink. Then again, that wouldn't have made for a salacious story dripping with speculations of improprieties.

The citizen-comprised EBEC is the primary place for executive branch accountability, and it has proven to be objective and effective. Consider that in May, the Executive Branch Ethics Commission demonstrated that a Beshear-dominated commission didn't preclude them from finding a former Beshear Personnel Cabinet official guilty of soliciting and collecting campaign contributions during work hours. So can we accept that the Bevin-dominated EBEC's recent ruling is just as fair-minded? In fact, two of Beshear's EBEC appointees voted with three of Bevin's appointees that found him innocent of the charges.

The final chapter in this story closes not with a Woodward and Bernstein bang that brings down the highest executive, but rather the whimper of a failed witch hunt. Speculative stories may bump circulation and sell ads for a season. And politicized writing that leads readers to imagine the worst about their elected leaders may be entertaining, but this is expected in gossip tabloids, not respectable news outlets.

This column appeard in the July 30, 2017 edition of the Northern Kentucky Tribune.