Ky. State Police ready to arrest ousted pension board chairman if he took seat among trustees

05/19/2016 01:43 PM

UPDATED FRANKFORT — Thomas Elliott, the former chair of the Kentucky Retirement Systems’ Board of Trustees who was ousted via executive order by Gov. Matt Bevin, sat quietly in the audience during Thursday’s meeting as Kentucky State Police troopers stood at both entries to the board room, ready to arrest Elliott on a misdemeanor charge if he participated in the day’s activities.

Elliott said he was confronted by Blake Brickman, Bevin’s chief of staff, and Personnel Cabinet Secretary Thomas Stephens, who sits on the KRS board, before Thursday’s meeting and threatened with arrest if he took a seat among trustees.

Elliott told Pure Politics in an interview that he felt like he was on an episode of the Netflix political drama “House of Cards.”

“When you arrive at a meeting and you have the governor’s chief of staff and the head of the Personnel Cabinet, who happens to be a seating (sic) board member, choose to want to take you in a room and shut the door and ultimately tell you what you’re going to do and if you don’t that we have Kentucky State Police officers here who will remove you and arrest you is very unique,” he said during a break in the meeting.

Bevin’s office, in an email to Pure Politics, said Elliott “was simply reminded of the valid executive order removing him from the board.”

“In effect he would be disrupting the meeting, which is against KRS 525.150, a Class B misdemeanor,” Bevin spokeswoman Amanda Stamper wrote.

Jodi Whitaker, spokeswoman for the Personnel Cabinet, deferred comment on the matter to Bevin’s office.

Elliott said he’s unsure of his next step. The KRS board, which oversees one of the country’s worst-funded public pension programs in the nation with more than $20 billion in unfunded liabilities, informally asked the agency’s legal staff to explore the matter further after Thursday’s meeting.

“I personally want to get some direction, and likewise I think the system has to determine for themselves what’s appropriate for, likewise for the system,” Elliott said, adding that speaking with an attorney is “certainly an option.”

“Or, you know, I’ve served for a little over five years and chaired three of those years,” Elliott said. “I have no vested interest in the retirement system whatsoever.”

Bevin removed Elliott via executive order April 20, but Elliott chaired a KRS trustees meeting the next day, during which the board requested an opinion from Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear, according to a report by the Associated Press.

Beshear’s office released an opinion Tuesday that said Bevin erred in removing Elliott before his term expired March 31, 2019.

Bevin’s office noted that Beshear’s opinion isn’t legally binding and part of the Democrat’s “politically motivated decision making.”

“It is unfortunate that AG Beshear is willing to cast aside the importance of transparency and accountability measures in favor of political expediency,” Stamper said in a statement Tuesday. “Furthermore, in this non-binding advisory opinion, AG Beshear condemns a practice utilized by previous governors, including former Governor Steve Beshear.”

The Republican governor appointed Mark Lattis, a certified public accountant for Yum! Brands in Louisville, to fill Elliott’s term on Wednesday after his initial appointment, Madisonville dermatologist William Smith, declined the post.

The former board chairman said he spoke with Steve Pitt, Bevin’s general counsel, for about 10 minutes by phone on Wednesday about a “peaceful” resolution within 30 hours. Another senior member of Bevin’s staff contacted his employer — Elliott is senior vice president at Old National Bank in Louisville — asking about his schedule before the conversation with Pitt, he said.

He declined to identify the member of Bevin’s staff who contacted his workplace or elaborate on the proposed resolution.

“It becomes very interesting and challenging, and if I evaluated it on my own, I would say for some reason there seems to be an adamant desire to have the position of the chair,” said Elliott, noting he would have supported KRS Trustee Vince Lang as the next pension board chair if he’d been allowed to vote at Thursday’s meeting, which included an agenda item to elect new board leadership.

A temporary chair, KRS Trustee Joseph Hardesty, was appointed to govern the meeting.

Stamper, in response to a follow-up email from Pure Politics regarding Elliott’s assertions on his conversation with Pitt and the Bevin staffer who contacted his work, declined to comment.

KRS Executive Director Bill Thielen, who announced Thursday his plans to retire from the agency Sept. 1, said his decision had nothing to do with the situation surrounding Elliott and Bevin.

Still, he called Thursday’s activities “regrettable.”

“We obviously have a conflict between the governor and the executive order he issued and the attorney general and the opinion that I thought we had a right to rely on,” Thielen said. “So that conflict still exists and I think needs to be resolved in the future, and it’s probably going to take a court judgment.”

State Sen. Joe Bowen, an Owensboro Republican and co-chairman of the legislature’s Public Pension Oversight Board, said didn’t expect uniformed state troopers when he arrived for Thursday’s KRS board meeting, adding that he was “caught off guard” by that development.

“From my perspective, the governor’s acting within his authority, and so this is what it’s gotten down to, I guess some would say regretfully, but this is a result of what’s been brewing, so we’ll see from this point going forward,” he told Pure Politics during a break in Thursday’s meeting, adding that the threat of arrest “was the necessary action to take to facilitate what the governor’s intentions are.”

Jim Carroll, of the group Kentucky Government Retirees, was dumbfounded by the state police presence Thursday. Like Thielen, Carroll said he anticipated court action would ultimately settle the issue.

“That’s the rule of law,” he said after the KRS trustees adjourned. “I was just stunned that this became a criminal matter with the notion that Tommy Elliott was under the threat of arrest for exercising what he perceived to be in good faith his duties. This was just a shocking, shocking episode.”

Kentucky Public Retirees President Paul Guffey and Larry Totten, the group’s liaison to KRS, expressed their displeasure “that the operations of the Kentucky Retirement Systems Board have become so confrontational that law enforcement was present today to deal with matters rather than moving forward in an orderly manner to address issues to resolve the crisis of KRS underfunding.”

“The crisis facing the Kentucky Employees Retirement System for non-hazardous retirees is far greater than personalities clashing over issues,” Guffey and Totten said in a joint statement.

“Kentucky Public Retirees encourages all parties to respect the proper roles of each branch of government as specified in the Constitution so that matters can be resolved orderly, properly, and for the long term.”


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