State Ethics Probe Into Nepotism Moves Forward

LEXINGTON, KY -- The state Executive Branch Ethics Commission is investigating whether 11 county property value administrators — including the Fayette County PVA — violated ethics rules by hiring family members, reports the Lexington Herald-Leader in its Saturday edition.

The commission initiated investigations of Fayette County PVA Renee True and 10 others for allegedly hiring or promoting family members after an initial investigation showed there was probable cause to think they violated anti-nepotism rules. The commission voted to begin the proceedings at a meeting Friday in Frankfort.

A lawyer for the PVAs — elected officials who oversee the assessment of property for tax purposes — said they did nothing wrong, the Herald-Leader reports.

"We were surprised and disappointed to learn that the Frankfort-based commission has chosen to conduct hearings into employment decisions of locally-elected PVAs," said Luke Morgan, a Lexington lawyer who represented True and other PVAs during the commission's initial investigation. "I cannot comment on the initiating report because I have not received it. But I can say unequivocally that the PVAs have done nothing wrong."

Although PVAs are elected county officials, their offices are supported administratively by the state revenue department. Thus, they are the only elected county officials who are subject to the ethics code governing all executive branch employees, the newspaper reports.

However, Morgan said all of the hires being questioned by the ethics commission were approved by the revenue department.

According to documents released by the commission, the PVAs allegedly violated state ethics rules by using their official position to obtain financial gain for themselves or members of their family.

All are accused of hiring a direct family member or promoting family members — parents, siblings, spouses or children — who worked for them, reports the newspaper.

True is accused of hiring her mother, according to commission records. True told the Herald-Leader in April 2007, when she was running for lieutenant governor, that her mother worked for the office before she became PVA. Her mother, Linda Taulbee, started at the PVA office when True's husband was PVA.

Revenue department records show that after True took office, Taulbee retired but was re-hired two months later as a seasonal employee. When that five-month position ended, True hired Taulbee again, reports the Herald Leader.

True said at the time that she did not remember her mother retiring and being rehired. True also said in the 2007 interview that she was not aware of any laws prohibiting the hiring of family members.

Reynolds, the Hart County PVA, said she, too, retained her mother when she became PVA six years ago. Her mother then retired and Reynolds later hired her back on a part-time basis. Reynolds was the only PVA the Herald-Leader was able to reach for comment, the Herald Leader reports.

"It was approved by the Revenue Cabinet at the time," Reynolds said of her mother's hiring.

The ethics commission's investigation stems from a long-running battle between PVAs and the state over anti-nepotism rules. According to Ethics Commission documents, the investigation began in July 2007, the newspaper reports.

In November 2007, Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd issued an order denying the PVAs' motion to quash the ethics commission's subpoenas during the investigation, but said he had concerns about whether the commission had the authority to investigate the PVAs. However, Shepherd said that was not the question brought before him at that time.

Morgan said Friday's decision to go forward with a formal investigation of the PVAs was a surprise, reports the newspaper.

"We received no notice that the commission was reviewing this matter today," Morgan said. "In fact, we have heard nothing from the commission in six months."

The allegations against the 11 will be heard by an administrative law judge at a later date. If found guilty, they could face a $5,000 fine, reports the Lexington Herald-Leader.

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