Fletcher Top Aide Resignation Surprises No One; Depatures Continue

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - When another of Gov. Ernie Fletcher's top-ranking aides acknowledged last week that he is considering a new job, no one seemed surprised.

After all, budget director Brad Cowgill, who took part in a highly publicized job interview on Thursday, would be only the latest in a line of Fletcher aides to leave if he gets the position with the Council on Postsecondary Education.

Resignations are to be expected with a governor's race under way, said Michael Baranowski, a political scientist at Northern Kentucky University. Fletcher, a first-term Republican who has been weakened politically by a hiring scandal, faces a strong Democratic challenger in the Nov. 6 election.

"If you're in the administration and you feel prospects are not good for re-election, it makes sense to get an early start, to get out there before your colleagues do," Baranowski said.

The administration has been plagued by turnover from the start.

If Cowgill leaves, only one of Fletcher's original cabinet members, Executive Secretary Robbie Rudolph, will remain.

Rudolph also is Fletcher's running mate in the race against former Democratic Lt. Gov. Steve Beshear.

Finance Secretary John Farris resigned effective at the end of July.

Economic Development Secretary Gene Strong resigned in January.

Others who have left include Environmental Secretary LaJuana S.
Wilcher, Commerce Secretary Jim Host, Education Secretary Virginia Fox, Health and Family Services Secretary James Holsinger, Justice Secretary Steve Pence, Personnel Secretary Erwin Roberts, Secretary Gene Strong, and chief of staff Daniel Groves.

Since taking off in 2003, Fletcher has gone through five communications directors.

Fletcher, the state's first Republican governor in more than 30 years, ran for re-election on the promise to "clean up the mess in Frankfort" but ended up in a mess of his won. He was indicted for allegedly rewarding political supporters with protected state jobs.

The indictment was dismissed last year in a negotiated settlement with prosecutors, but the grand jury that issued it released a written report alleging the governor had approved a "widespread and coordinated plan" to skirt state hiring laws. Fletcher charged that the investigation that led to the misdemeanor indictment was politically motivated.

Fletcher said the turnover among cabinet secretaries shouldn't be seen as a lack of confidence in his administration.

"I think that's an indication of the quality of people we brought here," Fletcher said. "And, I'm so proud of it."

Cowgill said his decision to pursue a job as interim director at the Council on Postsecondary Education was based on career goals, not politics. Cowgill had an interview with council members on Thursday, but he said it wasn't because he's concerned Fletcher may lose the election.

"That doesn't have anything to do with my thinking," he said. Farris, who took the finance position only a year ago, said he is leaving to pend time with his family before looking at other career opportunities.

He had previously worked as an economist at World Bank, the International Finance Corporation and the Research Triangle Institute.

Fletcher campaign manager Marty Ryall said the governor recruited the most qualified people he could find to serve in the administration. Some left lucrative positions in the private sector and others came out of retirement with the understanding that they would serve only a year or two.

Many, Ryall said, stayed longer than they originally planned. "These aren't people who came in looking to live off the government bureaucracy," Ryall said. "These are people who came in to try to make a difference."

Baranowski said he would expect more resignations if Fletcher continues trailing in the polls. "There is a sense within the administration that they're short-timers," said Charles Wells, executive director of the
Kentucky Association of State Employees. "I've been hearing that there are a lot of high-ranking Fletcher administration officials who are looking for a place to land right now."

Wells said he believes that has to do with polls that show Fletcher trailing Beshear. "If these administrators really believed this administration would be around another four years, I think they would stay," Wells said. "They're good paying jobs. They're high profile jobs."

Ryall insists the criticism is unjustified. "Clearly, they're grasping at straws to attack the governor."

(Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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