When a federal judge asked Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis’ six deputy clerks in September if they would abide by his order to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, the lone objector had a conflict beyond any on religious grounds.
Nathan Davis is the 21-year-old son of Kim Davis, herself the child and deputy of the previous county clerk. She hired Nathan in January onto the low rung of her payroll at $12.50 an hour. And while Nathan Davis is otherwise another desk worker in an innocuous county office, he symbolizes a phenomenon that has deep roots in Kentucky: nepotism.
For all the advances in hiring guidelines and employment law in the United States, Kentucky takes a mostly permissive approach to the hiring of family members at the local government level. When the state last set out to curtail the practice — in 1994 — it wound up letting cities and counties decide for themselves how to address it. The end result was a patchwork of policies, many legalizing nepotism, many with rules so infused with loopholes that officials readily bring their kinfolk aboard.
“It’s basically a state government-supported jobs program for some of these poor counties — and they don’t want any interference,” said state Rep. Jim Wayne, D-Louisville, one of 18 cosponsors of the 1994 measure.
Nepotism statistics don’t exist in Kentucky. No one keeps track of family hires at the city, county or state levels. No paperwork exists showing that a road superintendent is the brother of the county judge-executive who hired him, or that a newly hired payroll clerk is the niece of a county magistrate.
The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting attempted to gauge the extent of nepotism in Kentucky, examining dozens of counties with the most liberal nepotism policies or known examples of family hiring. After more than 80 public records requests and numerous emails and phone calls, the center confirmed 50 instances of full-time family hiring in various county offices across the state.
Family connections can be career paths in the private sector. Mom-and-pop enterprises typically hire sons, daughters and in-laws to help mind the store. But in the public sector, the practice of handing out stable, taxpayer-funded jobs to family members — often without advertising the vacancy — is commonly frowned upon. In about half the states, it’s against the law.
Texas in 1993 barred all public officials — state and local — from hiring relatives. Indiana prohibits all public officials from hiring relatives into their “direct line of supervision.” Missouri’s authority to throw family-hiring officials from office is embedded in the state constitution.
Kentucky has taken no such steps. It leaves citizens wary of county courthouse jobs becoming political spoils.
“What we look for — what we hope for — in our counties is competency, somebody who can actually do what we put them in office to do,” said Dee Davis, president of the Center for Rural Strategies in Whitesburg, in Eastern Kentucky. “The nature of politics is such that the people who are better at it get elected, and it gets to be family business.”
That brand of family business becomes taxpayer business, though. And on occasion, family hires become a taxpayer liability.
Such was the case in the county clerk’s offices in Lewis County in 2011 and Martin County in 2012, when a grandson and two daughters, respectively, stole money, pleaded guilty and got five-year jail sentences. Also in Elliott County, where a former county judge-executive and his son, the deputy judge-executive, were caught and convicted in a gravel-for-votes scheme in 2010. And most recently in Boyd County, where the current county clerk’s daughter, a deputy clerk, was arrested in October on the charge of stealing from a courthouse employee’s purse.
Granted, these are exceptions, not the rule. Still, some counties — and many employers in the private sector — maintain a jaundiced eye toward nepotism.
“It sounds like an HR nightmare to me,” said Cathy Fyock, a human resources consultant in Louisville and past chairwoman of the Kentucky Society for Human Resource Management.
“Usually what we see in the private sector is that there can’t be a direct-reporting relationship. That’s really a best practice because of the perceptions of favoritism or discrimination,” she said. “If a relationship goes bad, all hell breaks loose. It’s just messy.”
The absence of data or an exhaustive study makes it difficult to grasp the scope of nepotism in Kentucky. Yet in 1994, state lawmakers deemed local nepotism traditions worthy of challenge.
Backed by the reform-minded administration of Gov. Brereton Jones, the 1994 General Assembly voted to require cities and counties to adopt standards of conduct for officials. They managed to force elected officials to file financial disclosure statements once a year. But by the time city and county lobbyists and rural legislators were through fiddling with the bill’s language, all that was left of the nepotism clause was that localities have one.
Allen and Monroe counties used the occasion to legalize nepotism. Their one-sentence nepotism policies declare, “The employment of members of families of officials or employees of the county will be allowed.”
Three other counties — Clinton, Fleming and Rowan — permit unlimited hiring of officials’ relatives. In all, 75 counties, about two of every three in the state, take kindly to nepotism. Most of those throw in assorted taboos, such as paying relatives more money than co-workers with the same duties, supervising relatives or passing over superior job applicants. Nine allow a maximum of one relative on the county payroll per elected official. Magoffin County allows two. Officials in Metcalfe County can hire from the family if a nebulous “rule of necessity” is issued.
Kentucky counties are also in widespread disagreement as to what constitutes a “family member.”
Most include spouses, children, parents and siblings, while others count in-laws, grand-relatives, step-relatives and half-siblings. Only a few, such as Fayette and Jackson counties, extend the definition to first cousins. Several counties’ bans on hiring the children of elected officials only apply to those living at home, not on their own.
Butler County stands alone in excluding spouses from its definition of family, so Sheriff Scottie Ward was on solid ethical ground when he hired his wife, Jamie, to be his $24,128-a-year secretary as soon as he took office in 2011.
County nepotism policies are maintained by the Kentucky Department of Local Government. While most counties etched exceptions and easy-to-meet conditions into their nepotism rules, 28 embraced the spirit of the Legislature’s intent. They decreed that the county cannot hire family members of elected officials.
Another 17 counties have a narrower rule against hiring officials’ relatives: the official can’t be doing the hiring.
The state’s most populous county, Jefferson, has a nepotism policy with back doors. Family members of elected officials, including the mayor and members of Metro Council, can be hired into any city job other than in that official’s office. Family hires cannot be paid more than workers with the same duties. They can’t fall under the supervision of the relative. They can’t be hired over a more-qualified candidate. So if a council member’s daughter were to become the highest-performing, lowest-paid member of the city street-sweeping crew, that would be kosher.
But it wasn’t proper when Metro Councilwoman Barbara Shanklin hired her grandson Gary Bohler as a part-time, $25-an-hour legislative aide, the Metro Ethics Commission decreed in 2013. Although Shanklin was censured for that and other ethics violations, she survived a council ouster vote and serves on council today. She had fired Bohler in 2012.
More than a dozen county officials who hired family members told KyCIR that the arrangement works. They say their wives and children excel at their jobs and are proving more valuable than the jobs pay.
“It’s not like they’re coming in here playing around every day,” Shelby County Clerk Sue Carole Perry said of the two daughters who work for her, Theresa Gravett and Lisa Vick. “They come in here, they know what they’re doing and they’re very serious, they’re very professional.”
Right after taking office in 2009, Elliott County Clerk Shelia Blevins hired her sister, Jeannie Moore, as a deputy clerk — without advertising the job.
“The former clerk left office, and all of her employees left with her, and so I started fresh,” Blevins said. “Because I was learning and I just needed somebody that I knew for sure I could depend on, she was there with me and had my back, and that’s the way I went.”
In some instances, apparently, no one wants the job. Such was the case when Lyon County Jailer Hank O’Bryan hired his wife, Donna, to be his lone deputy jailer in 1986.
“We couldn’t get a female willing to be on call seven days a week, 24 hours a day, to handle female prisoners,” O’Bryan said. He pays his wife about $25,000 a year.
Other officeholders are more inclined to follow best human resources practices by advertising job openings and hiring candidates based on skills and experience. But most counties don’t have hiring guidelines that apply to all of county government. Hiring and firing varies from one elected official’s fiefdom to the next.
Hancock County Judge-Executive Jack McCaslin said his office steers clear of nepotism. “We advertise our positions,” he said. “There are people out there that are probably more qualified for the positions that need to have the opportunity to have the job.”
As a model for dealing with nepotism, Kentucky’s state government sends mixed signals to local jurisdictions. The executive branch forbids its workers from having anything to do with the hiring of family members into jobs they supervise. All other means of entry are fine. Moreover, the ban is in the state Executive Branch Ethics Code, not state law, so offenders face no more than a maximum $5,000 fine and a recommendation that they be removed from office or transferred. At the very least, a public scolding.
But enforcement actions rarely occur, and nepotism is “very rarely” seen at the state executive branch level, said Katie Gabhart, head of the Kentucky Executive Branch Ethics Commission. The last nepotism charges were filed in 2007 against 11 property valuation administrators — state employees who work in counties. Fines of no more than $2,000 were levied in 2012 against six of the 11.
Nepotism policies vary in other parts of state government. State law forbids local school districts from hiring relatives of school board members. Districts can hire the superintendent’s spouse if he or she has at least eight years of experience in a school district. Relatives of principals cannot be hired into their schools.
The General Assembly cannot employ relatives of legislators, but no such blanket prohibition exists in the judicial system. The Kentucky Court of Justice policy states that employees “be hired based on demonstrated knowledge, skills, abilities and bonafide work-related factors and not based on favoritism or family relationship.”
Unlike criminal conduct by politicians, nepotism doesn’t incite public backlash, said Dee Davis of the Center for Rural Strategies. He called it an “accepted, forgivable form of corruption.”
“If somebody says, ‘such-and-such hired his nephew,’ do you have time to take that message to the village and to organize against it or to write a letter to the editor when your own economic future might be dangling by a thread?” he said. “It takes a bit of courage to speak out.”
Public reaction to nepotism, Davis said, depends on one’s perspective. When large, urban institutions find jobs for the family members of high-profile hires, he said, it’s largely accepted.
“Nobody says, ‘Oh no, I’m outraged. That’s terrible,’ ” he said. “But if some jailer hires a cousin in a place like this, it’s an indicator of how corrupt everything is. It’s a sliding scale. I’m against corruption at all levels, but sometimes we’re outraged and sometimes we’re ho-hum, depending on our view of the world.”
On at least one front, officials concede the need for reform. In January, Kentucky Jailers Association President Mike Simpson, the elected jailer in Oldham County, called for a law requiring the hiring of county officials’ family members to be approved by county fiscal courts. And state Rep. Brian Linder, R-Dry Ridge, says he would like to introduce a bill barring jailers from hiring relatives.
“Maybe a relative is the most qualified person, I don’t know,” Linder said. “But to me it would be very hard to do a job recommendation or some sort of discipline if that’s an immediate family member. To me, that’s a huge conflict of interest.”
Debbie Jones Castle, the Boyd County clerk, has no such qualms. In 1994, she was clerk of Fiscal Court when it adopted a ban on county hiring of elected officials’ family members. Ten years later, the Fiscal Court loosened the rule to allow one family hire, and after Jones was elected county clerk in 2006, she hired her daughter, Tyffany Jones, as a deputy clerk.
Jones was arrested Oct. 6 for the alleged theft of $75 from the purse of the county’s human resources director in May. Castle did not return repeated phone calls and emails for information and comment on Jones. But Trisha Leach, the HR director, said Tyffany Jones is no longer in the clerk’s office and that a new employee was hired there in June. That new hire, Myra King, is another daughter of Debbie Jones Castle.
Reporter James McNair can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (502) 814.6543.
In reporting this story, KyCIR collected 50 examples statewide of county employees hired after their family members became county officials — most in the same office.