Lawmakers grill finance secretary over $500K contract to investigate fmr. Gov. Beshear
08/15/2016 09:24 PM
FRANKFORT — A contract from the Finance Cabinet seeking to investigate allegations of pay-to-play politics in recent years narrowly moved forward in committee Monday despite the protests over the partisan makeup of the law firm hired to do the work.
The Government Contract Review Committee heard testimony from Finance Cabinet Secretary William Landrum over the need to spend up to $500,000 over the next two years digging into claims of abuse in government under former Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat.
The contract calls for lawyers to earn up to $250 dollars an hour reviewing claims which, Finance Cabinet Sec. William Landrum says if found true would be sent on to another investigating agency like the US Attorneys office, the FBI or Kentucky State Police, but several lawmakers asked why Landrum didn’t just start with those agencies in the first place.
The maxmium generally granted by the contract review committee for hourly attorney compensation is $125, but the rate charged by the Taft law firm doubles that. And lawmakers said there was another firm standing by to do the work for less than the normal rate.
Landrum and others testifying refused to say what it is they are investigating specifically, but hinted that it could be criminal in nature.
Named within the contract to investigate former Gov. Beshear’s administration is Jackie Bennett Jr, who was Ken Starr’s protege, according to testimony.
Two other Taft, Stettinius, and Hollister attorneys, Jay Dickerson and John Nalbandian, served as legal counsel to the Kentucky Republican Party in 2014 in a case against Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes.
Nalbandian also served as general counsel to the Republican Party of Kentucky in 2015, and attended the Republican National Convention as an alternate delegate as the contract was pending, according to testimony on Monday.
The back and forth between lawmakers on the panel and Landrum continued for more than an hour as the Democratic legislators chided Landrum and Gov. Bevin, R-Kentucky, for the partisan make up of the attorney’s meant to investigate Beshear.
Meanwhile Republicans cast the need for the contract as one of transparency and good government.
In a statement, House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said all Kentuckians deserves a fair and transparent government, but he called into question the firm hired to seek out that corruption.
“Governor Bevin’s decision to spend $500,000 of taxpayer money on an out-of-state law firm with deep ties to the Republican Party to investigate a Democratic Governor is reckless and self-serving,” Stumbo said.
“This project was awarded to Taft at almost twice the rate the state typically allows, despite a lower and more local option on the table,” he continued. “Among the partners listed in the proposal are James Dickerson, legal counsel for the conservative SuperPac that claims on its website to be committed to flipping the House, and John Nalbandian, legal counsel for the RPK’s state central committee. Both Nalbandian and Dickerson, as well as several other attorneys listed as proposed counsel, are major donors to the Republican Party in Kentucky. This is clearly a case of ‘pay to play.’
“If the Governor wants this investigation to have any credibility, there needs to be a more neutral firm selected to spearhead this process. Failing that, we demand a firewall be placed between the investigation and these Republican attorneys, or any other staff with similar conflicts.”
Despite the entrenched positions, and apparent political make up of the law firm hired by the Bevin administration the contract was ultimately approved.
Democratic lawmakers did vote against the contract, but only had four votes, with five being needed to disapprove the document. Even Democrats had the votes the gesture is largely symbolic as the Executive Branch has the authority to move ahead with the contract even if the legislative body disapproved it outside of a legislative session.
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