Bevin releases disputed emails after Stumbo sues, House panel investigating Jessamine County road project's delay meets

10/28/2016 06:43 PM

FRANKFORT – Hours after House Speaker Greg Stumbo filed a lawsuit on Friday seeking emails withheld by Gov. Matt Bevin’s office in response to an open records request pertaining to a delayed Jessamine County road project, the administration reversed course.

The 13 pages of emails released late Friday mostly deal with the administration’s response to questions from a Courier Journal reporter rather than the project itself and show Bevin Chief of Staff Blake Brickman had drafted a statement that leveled numerous allegations against Democratic state Rep. Russell Meyer, who claims the $11.2 million project’s delay came in retaliation for his decision against joining the Republican Party after overtures from Bevin.

The governor’s office has denied politics played a role in the project’s delay, which has cost the state $625,000, and say utility and right-of-way issues caused it. The contract was signed days after Bevin took office in December, but his administration has said much of the deal’s work was done under Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear.

In an Aug. 30 email, Brickman drafted a six-paragraph statement in which he accused Meyer of “wasting over $1.15 million of Nicholasville taxpayer dollars as Mayor” in a real estate transaction for a new City Hall that hasn’t been built and possibly skirting state procurement codes in offering a pair of no-bid contracts to a donor’s excavating company that were each just below the $20,000 threshold for competitive bidding.

The two parcels were bought for $600,000 and $550,000 in 2007, with Brickman questioning why the city paid $173,000 more for the latter piece than it sold for at a master commissioner’s auction months earlier.

The governor’s office did not immediately supply supporting documentation on Brickman’s draft statement, which Steve Pitt, Bevin’s general counsel, referred to as “tough but necessary given the false and slanderous things (Meyer is) saying” in a follow-up email to Brickman and others in Bevin’s office.

Meyer could not be reached for comment. He has said Brickman berated him in a phone call after informing him of his decision to remain a Democrat, which Brickman has denied.

Stumbo’s spokesman, Brian Wilkerson, said the speaker’s office had not seen the emails yet, “but would still need assurance, from the court, that the emails are all of the records.”

In a news release announcing the lawsuit, Stumbo called on Bevin to release the emails his office exempted.

“As a former Attorney General who issued opinions concerning the Open Records law, I don’t believe you can release portions of emails while claiming the remaining are privileged from disclosure,” Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said in a statement. “The Open Records Act and the people the Commonwealth require that the governor be transparent in the commonwealth’s business dealings.”

Chad Meredith, Bevin’s deputy general counsel, said in a letter Friday to Matt Stephens, Stumbo’s general counsel, that their decision to file a lawsuit “shows that the Speaker is more interested in trying to score political points and making headlines than in learning the truth and dealing with reality.”

“We are surprised that you have chosen to circumvent the normal Open Records process by filing a lawsuit rather than pursuing the typical course of appealing to the Attorney General’s Office, or even asking for a reconsideration of our response,” Meredith wrote.

“Your act of jumping the gun has done nothing more than produce an unnecessary lawsuit that clogs up our courts and wastes taxpayer resources.”

Wilkerson said the law allows Stumbo to seek relief directly from the courts.

“This path will expedite the matter, which we think is necessary given the timeframe,” he said.

The back-and-forth over emails pertaining to the East Brannon Road project comes as a special House committee tasked with investigating the matter met for the second time on Friday.

The panel’s contract attorney, Nashville-based Eli Richardson, spent most of the meeting reviewing available records on the matter. A pair of Transportation Cabinet employees initially called as witnesses did not testify after Pitt questioned the committee’s legal authority to exist.

Richardson will earn $225 per hour in his role, which Rep. Jim Wayne, a Louisville Democrat who chairs the investigatory committee, says is above the state’s $125-per-hour rate for normal legal services but is lower than the rate for an Indianapolis-based law firm hired by Bevin to investigate practices under Beshear.

Stumbo has said he would like a report from the panel when the General Assembly convenes in January, giving the committee nine weeks to complete its work.

Afterward, Richardson said information in the inquiry is still developing when asked about the panel’s timeline.

“We intend to complete our work,” he said. “We intend to complete it regardless of the electoral results may be but are cognizant that we need to be expeditious.”

Wayne promised a “methodical” and “thorough” investigation in hopes of having a report to the House by January.

“I think it is important for us to be expeditious and resolve this because we owe that to the public,” he said. “If there are questions out there about something the governor did and he is in fact innocent of any wrongdoing, then the public needs to be reassured of that. On the other hand, if there is some wrongdoing that needs further investigation, that may be something we will turn up and we will refer that to the proper authorities or take proper action as necessary.”

The four-person committee has been criticized by House Minority Floor Leader Jeff Hoover and only able to attract a single Republican member in Rep. Jim Stewart, of Flat Lick. Democrats hold a 53-47 majority with the Nov. 8 elections looming, but Wayne said a GOP takeover wouldn’t necessarily make the panel’s work moot.

“This committee, unless the speaker says otherwise, will continue its work until the first Tuesday after the first Monday in January, when the new members are sworn in, so at that point I would hope that we would have some at least preliminary information that we could present to the full House in a report,” Wayne said.

“So my hope is that the committee can end up with some type of report in writing to present to the House.”

The committee’s next meeting is scheduled for 1 p.m. Nov. 4.


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