Prosecutorial experience becomes focus of race for attorney general

07/16/2015 02:30 PM

With ads starting to hit the airwaves and $1 million in ad time reserved for October, the open election to name the next state attorney general is heating up.

An outside group supporting Republican state Sen. Whitney Westerfield has gone on the attack over the lack of prosecutorial experience of Democratic candidate Andy Beshear, among other issues.

Beshear, the son of Gov. Steve Beshear, has worked as an attorney for more than 10 years. He currently practices litigation, business and finance, and a “decent amount” of non-profit work in the Louisville office of Stites and Harbison — the same firm his father worked for before being elected governor in 2007.

Westerfield won election to the Senate in November 2012 and is the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, but before that he served five years as a part-time assistant commonwealth’s attorney in Christian County. Westerfield is relying heavily on his time as a prosecutor in the Nov. 3 election to become the state’s next chief law enforcement official.

Pure Politics looked into his record as a commonwealth’s attorney in the Third Judicial Circuit under Christian County Commonwealth’s Attorney Lynn Pryor, a Democrat, who won election to the post in 2006.

Through documents obtained via open records requests, Pure Politics saw a picture of Westerfield emerge as a young attorney learning the ropes and making a few mistakes along the way.

According to Westerfield’s personnel file, which Pryor told Pure Politics has been requested by several reporters and other individuals, the now-34-year-old Westerfield had problems with punctuality and a dispute with another colleague.

An August 2007 entry in Westerfield’s personnel file cites complaints with courtesy, professionalism and attitude. The file says that, “Personal interests often take priority over work duties,” including “Teeth Cleaning vs. Jury Trial,” “Pedicure vs. Arraignments,” and “Cell Phone in Court.”

At the time, Westerfield’s file reflects that he was given meetings and advice from Pryor “to help as a young lawyer to work as a team player and to not be on the defensive.”

Westerfield passed the bar in 2006 and went to work for Pryor in January 2007 at the beginning of her time as Christian County’s commonwealth’s attorney.

In a phone interview with Pure Politics, Westerfield defended his record as an assistant commonwealth’s attorney, saying that he “went on to work for the same boss for four years more and got a raise or two in the process and became essentially the first assistant.”

Westerfield also said that he never missed a jury trial and that those remarks in the file is “not a reflection of the work that I did or the kind of work you’ve seen as a Senator.”

Pryor spoke with Pure Politics about the personnel record, which she was unaware was public record until the documents had been requested. In the interview, Pryor said that the meetings with Westerfield and others were offered early on in their time together as “constructive criticism.”

Pryor said she wanted to “make a better impression than that of the previous administration,” which was why she started out tough on her upstart staff early in her and their time in the office. Pryor also said that she could not remember a time when Westerfield missed a court appearance.

Another entry from 2008 relates to a letter and meeting held with Westerfield involving an interaction with another employee, who is no longer with the office and no longer a public official and will go unnamed in this report.

After relating an instance when tempers flared between the employees in May 2008, notes indicate Pryor met with Westerfield to discuss his attitude and ego.
Pryor said the early documents reflect an “interoffice communication and personality issue,” but that she “doesn’t hold that against him (Westerfield) in any way.”

In fact, Pryor said Westerfield was her “go-to” when she was out-of-the-office.

“I don’t have a bad thing to say about him,” she said, adding that she “never had any idea” the documents could come back to hurt her employees in a political contest.

In a follow-up text message, Westerfield told Pure Politics that he “quickly learned what it means to be a successful prosecutor and professional” under Pryor as an assistant commonwealth’s attorney.

“My work ethic was recognized and rewarded by increased responsibility and pay,” he wrote. “I’m proud of my record as a prosecutor and now as Senate Judiciary Chairman, where I have been recognized as Legislator of the Year by the Kentucky County Attorney Association. I am disappointed but not surprised that someone would try to use old paperwork to attack me for the one thing I have and my opponent does not: a record of success fighting for public safety.”

The Beshear campaign had no comment on Westerfield’s personnel records.

As a lawmaker Westerfield has been heralded by both the media and his colleagues for the bipartisan legislation and tenacity to pass laws. In the two and a half years he has been a member of the legislature he has helped broker major judicial reforms for how the state deals with issues of juvenile justice and played a key role securing a comprehensive anti-heroin law.

Ronnie Ellis, a writer from CNHI-News service heaped praise on Westerfield and his Democratic counterpart Rep. John Tilley also of Hopkinsville for their work on the anti-heroin bill passed in 2015 in a post-session column.

Tilley, the House Judiciary chair, told Pure Politics in a phone interview Thursday that he has been “very pleased” in his working relationship with Westerfield.

As chair Tilley has worked with several Republican counterparts including current Senate President Robert Stivers and former Sen. Tom Jensen. He says all three — Jensen, Stivers and Westerfield — have worked in a bipartisan manner putting issues and public policy first.

“I look at Whitney the same way — we’re always willing to roll up our sleeves together,” he said.

Pryor, a Democrat who is stuck in this election between her party and her former employee, is not endorsing either candidate, but she thinks Kentucky will have a good leader whoever ends up on top.

“As far as being attorney general, he would do a fine job,” she said.

About Nick Storm

Nick Storm is the Anchor and Managing Editor of Pure Politics, the only nightly program dedicated to Kentucky politics. Nick covers all of the political heavyweights and his investigative work brings to light issues that might otherwise go unnoticed, like the connection between the high profile Steubenville, Ohio rape and a Kentucky hacker whose push for further investigation could put him in federal prison. Nick is also working on a feature length bio documentary Outlaw Poet: A documentary on Ron Whitehead. Follow Nick on Twitter @NickStorm_cn2. Nick can be reached at 502-792-1107 or nicholas.storm@twcnews.com.

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