FRANKFORT, Ky. (KT) - State Auditor Mike Harmon issued a data bulletin on Wednesday in which he says several Kentucky counties are in violation of ethics laws passed by the General Assembly more than 25 years ago.
In response to the Operation Boptrot scandal of the early 1990s, when 17 lawmakers, staffers and lobbyists were convicted on federal corruption charges, the General Assembly passed sweeping ethics reforms, which affected state and local governments.
State Auditor Mike Harmon says he decided to look at each county’s ethics code because over the past five years, his office has made seven referrals from audits and examinations to various local ethics boards.
“To our surprise, we found several of those boards were inactive and appointments to these boards had expired,” Harmon said. “I have often said the role of our office is to make sure government is efficient, effective and ethical. Based on that philosophy and the need for greater transparency and accountability, we decided to take a deeper look at the status of local ethics codes and the boards that are tasked with enforcing them.”
One of the major findings of Harmon’s office was that although they confirmed all 120 counties adopted a code of ethics, 52 counties have made no revisions or updates to their ethics code since initially adopting their local code in late 1994 or early 1995.
Kentucky law requires four subjects to be addressed in an ethics code: standards of conduct, annual financial disclosure reporting, nepotism and designation of a person or group responsible for enforcement of the code.
“Our auditors’ research identified several counties that fail to have all the required components in their ethics codes, and the requirements were addressed in a wide variety of ways among different counties. For example, some counties may have strong anti-nepotism policies, while four counties have no ethics code provision on nepotism at all, which is clearly not compliant with state law,” Harmon stated.
In two counties, the nepotism section of their codes consists of a single sentence stating, “The employment of members of families of officials or employees of the county will be allowed.” Although this meets the statutory requirement to address nepotism, it does not seem to be in the spirit of the ethics law.
When it comes to annual financial disclosure for local candidates, ethics codes for 10 counties don’t require it, and three county ethics codes do not address the financial disclosure requirement at all. Another 26 counties disclosed that financial statements aren’t filed annually despite their local ethics codes requiring it.
In addition to requiring the creation of county ethics codes, the law directs that a local board or commission be formed with the task of making sure elected officials adhere to those codes. Auditors found as of August 11, 2020, 35 counties have no one appointed to their boards and eight additional counties appointed members after auditors began asking questions. Some boards have never even met due to a history of not receiving complaints.
“Although state law doesn’t require local ethics boards to meet regularly, a good practice would be meeting at least once a year to review financial disclosure statements that must be filed annually,” said Harmon. “Having a good ethics code and ethics board are crucial to ensuring the public’s trust in government, so all local governments need to ensure they have an ethics code that meets the legal requirements and a functioning ethics board to uphold that code.”
The state law also directs that “should local government entities fail to comply with the requirements of this section, the Department for Local Government ‘shall notify all state agencies, including area development districts, which deliver services or payments of money’ from the commonwealth to the non-compliant entity to suspend such services and payments until the entity comes into compliance.”
Asked if the auditor’s office is notifying the Department for Local Government about the provision to suspend services and payments, Michael Goins, spokesman for Harmon, replied, “Our office has spoken with DLG and provided them a copy of our data bulletin. As with any referral, we provide them with the information that we have confirmed. It will be up to the agency that receives the information to investigate further and make a determination as to whether any action is necessary.”
Kentucky Today has sent the same question to Gov. Andy Beshear’s office but has not yet received a response.