During Tim Longmeyer’s four-year run as secretary of the Kentucky Personnel Cabinet, giving money to Democratic candidates for state office was a gesture widespread among his so-called “non-merit” employees.
Of the 32 full-time non-merit employees — all politically appointed — 25 contributed to campaigns, a participation rate of 78 percent. Their money, $18,200 in all, went to Democrats, starting with the re-election bid of incumbent Gov. Steve Beshear in 2011.
But were they forced to donate? Four months after taking office, current Gov. Matt Bevin launched an investigation of what he called the “apparent coercion of employees at the Personnel Cabinet while Longmeyer was secretary there” to donate to Democratic candidates. Despite the lofty claim, his office won’t identify any such employees.
Richard Beliles, chairman of Common Cause of Kentucky, said the extent of political giving by non-merit employees “doesn’t look good.”
“I think that’s a very troubling high percentage of the Personnel Cabinet employees giving to a particular party,” he said. “It definitely looks like there’s some sort of expectation.”
The opposite was true of the 259 merit-system employees who worked in the cabinet while Longmeyer was in charge. Only five contributed to statewide campaigns during his time as secretary. Their combined $2,200 went entirely to Democratic candidates.
To find out if non-merit employees donated under duress, the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting reached out to 10 of the 25 donors under Longmeyer’s wing. Eight didn’t respond. The two who did said there was no coercion.
“I have never been coerced to donate,” said Crystal Staley, former executive director of the Personnel Cabinet’s Center of Strategic Innovation and now a spokeswoman for Attorney General Andy Beshear, to whom she made two donations totalling $500 in 2014 and 2015. “Anytime I have donated to a person, it has been my choice.”
Jeff Barr, who ran the cabinet’s Division of Insurance Administration, said he made — voluntarily — a total of $1,750 in donations to both Beshears and 2015 gubernatorial candidate Jack Conway.
“There was no arm-twisting,” said Barr, a longtime member of the Louisville Metro Democratic Party’s executive committee.
Questions about dubious political fundraising practices involving Longmeyer surfaced in March. Federal authorities charged the Louisville resident with accepting more than $212,000 in bribes from a contractor while personnel secretary. He pleaded guilty to bribery on April 19. At least $6,000 of the bribes didn’t end up in Longmeyer’s pocket but in Democratic campaign chests, according to court documents.
In some instances, Longmeyer acknowledged, he told the contractor to use the cash to fund illegal conduit contributions to specific political campaigns and to provide those contribution checks to him.
The recipients of those corrupt contributions are not suspected of being in on the bribery scheme. The government noted in court documents that it had “no reason to believe” candidates knew the money was dirty.
If what Bevin alleges is true and other cabinet employees were forced to pony up politically, it wouldn’t have been the first time.
In 2012, Charles Geveden Sr., then deputy secretary of the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet, was accused by the state’s Executive Branch Ethics Commission of shaking down cabinet employees for money toward Gov. Beshear’s re-election. The complaint said Geveden went so far as to suggest a specific dollar amount based on their position or salary.
Rodney Young, a former psychologist at the Hazelwood Center for the Mentally Retarded in Louisville, drew attention to Geveden’s solicitation. In a letter to former Kentucky Republican Party Chairman Steve Robertson, he said Geveden called 14 employees in all — all non-merit — with the implied threat that they would lose their jobs if they didn’t contribute “significant” amounts to the Beshear campaign. The letter wound up in the office of former Attorney General Jack Conway.
Geveden settled the matter with the Executive Branch Ethics Commission in July 2014. He agreed to pay a $5,000 fine.
Kentucky merit system employees are hired and promoted based on their qualifications and performance and are protected from arbitrary and discriminatory actions. State law forbids asking merit system employees to make campaign contributions. For non-merit employees, another law applies, one that forbids officeholders from letting their personal interests conflict with their public duties. That’s where Geveden crossed the line.
“If you want to solicit campaign contributions off state time and not using state resources, you may have the ability to do that,” said Katie Gabhart, executive director of the ethics commission. “But when you’re on state time, using state resources, and you’re telling an employee, ‘Based on your salary (being) this much, your contribution to this candidate should be this much,’ you’re tying it to their employment, then you’re abusing state time and resources.”
No one has been accused of pressuring state employees to contribute to campaigns. Bevin assigned his Finance and Administration Cabinet secretary, Bill Landrum, to investigate whether any state employee was subjected to such pressure under the Beshear administration.
“We’ve seen enough at this point to know there is a serious problem,” Bevin said last month.
Bevin’s call for an investigation triggered public rebukes from both Andy and Steve Beshear. Andy Beshear, in an April 22 letter to the ethics commission, asked the group to investigate both Bevin’s claims and Beshear’s own suspicion that Bevin is firing non-merit state employees on the basis of their political giving histories. Andy Beshear said employees who willingly gave to Democrats might claim coercion to save their jobs.
Last Wednesday, Steve Beshear joined the fray, saying that state employees in Bevin’s crosshairs are being forced to help pay down Bevin’s campaign debt. Like Bevin and his son, the former governor did not provide names of any specific employees.
Beliles, of Common Cause, says the financial demands on political candidates leads to situations like that of Longmeyer’s Personnel Cabinet, where four of every five non-merit workers gave to Democratic collection plates.
“There’s too much money in these elections and that’s what causes the need to put pressure on people who are employed as non-merit employees,” he said.
Reporter James McNair can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and (502) 814.6543.