Director, Commonwealth Policy Center

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 appeared in other major newspaper and radio outlets including U.S. News and World Reports. The insinuation is that any ruling will be slanted in Bevin's favor.  Reasonable suspicions are raised. But do the facts and prior history of Executive Branch Ethics Commission (EBEC) appointees support the insinuations? A careful analysis says no.

For starters, this story ignores the fact that the law requires the Governor to make the appointments.  Since the five members of the Commission serve 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.

Tim Kline is Gov. Bevin's most recent appointment to the EBEC and he's getting flak for a $200 donation he made to Bevin's gubernatorial bid in 2015. Critics imply this will skew his judgment of whether Bevin's purchase of a new home was above board. Full disclosure, I know Kline personally.

So should campaign donations preclude a board appointment? It's a fair question but it wasn't an issue 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.  Martin Johnstone was appointed to the commission in 2012 and donated to Beshear in 2011. How many news stories were written about these perceived conflicts? None that we could find.

A Louisville Courier-Journal story in 2016 questioned Bevin's executive order removing the attorney general and auditor from recommending appointments to the board. Here's the context. Between 1992-2008, Kentucky governors alone made the 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 still be favorable 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.

Interestingly, when the auditor and attorney general made recommendations they submitted names of people who donated to their campaigns as well. Former Auditor Adam Edelen recommended Sheila Isaac to the EBEC. She donated to his campaign in March 2015, the year he ran for reelection. She was appointed by Beshear in October 2015.  Attorney General Jack Conway recommended Jeanie Owen Miller to serve on the EBEC. She donated $650 to his campaign in 2007 and was appointed by Beshear in 2008. 

Beshear's move to include the attorney general and auditor in the selection process was more symbolism than systemic change. Until the legislature codifies new rules for EBEC appointments, including whether previous donations should preclude appointees from consideration, governors of either party can make changes to their liking via executive order.

In May, the Executive Branch Ethics Commission demonstrated that a Beshear-dominated board didn't preclude them find finding a former Beshear Personnel Cabinet official guilty of soliciting and collecting campaign contributions during work hours. So it's fair to say that a Bevin-dominated board can be just as fair-minded.

Of course, conflicts of interest should be minimized when considering Executive Branch Ethics Commission nominees. We should expect people of the utmost integrity to serve on commissions designed to reign in abuse. But in light of this story, we also need to ask: who will police a news media that is negligent and sloppy in reporting?