Sunday, September 30, 2018

Bluegrass and Green Dollars: Corruption in Kentucky Politics


As readers of Another Opinion know, I've been writing a lot lately about the influence of money in politics. I've covered the biggest donors by industry, the military contractors, and the biggest names in the buying and selling of Congress game that we call "democracy" (in truth, it's only a name. We've been an Oligarchy; a plutocracy for quite awhile now. Our "Constitutional Republic" is more fit for historical fiction books than reality these days). Nevertheless, all this research made me curious about my home state of Kentucky.

Kentucky is known for Bluegrass, tobacco, whiskey, "fast horses and faster women". It's also been known for its backwoods "good ole boys" and rednecks too; of hillbillies living "down in the hollar", for moonshine and racing, be it horse, car, or whatever. If it goes fast, we want to do it. Kentucky is also known for coal mining (and diseases like black lung which strikes 1 in 5 miners and sludge which clogs rivers and streams), abject poverty, a "race to the bottom" educational system, and more recently, drug addiction. Out of its 120 counties, nine have among the highest poverty rates in the country (Owsley County is ranked third in the nation with a poverty rate of 45.2%). Kentucky itself is ranked 47th--third from the bottom. 25% of children in Kentucky live at or below the poverty line. Altogether, that's about 800,000 Kentuckians living at or below the poverty line.

It was once known for its railroads like the Louisville and Nashville (L&N), Southern Railway, and the Illinois Central. While those iconic railroads are gone, some have been replaced by the CSX , Norfolk Southern, and Canadian Pacific, Kentucky remains a key transportation hub for UPS, as well as DHL and FedEx. The largest city (town really) is Louisville, serves as the launch center for UPS under the rather euphemistically sounding "Louisville International Airport" (the only thing "international" about it is if you're in a UPS container. Other than that, it's just a connector). Regardless, Kentucky is still known for its manufacturing, from cars to appliances. However, Kentucky roads are ranked 16th overall with bridge quality ranked 24th and public transit usage is 32nd (also ranked low because of a lack of available public transportation. Many users have also reported unclean and/or unsafe conditions on the available public transit systems). Road quality, however, is actually pretty good. Kentucky is ranked in 7th place.

In terms of education, Kentucky is actually ranked 28th with a 88.6% high school graduation rate despite an overall poverty rate of 18.5% (14% is the national average). It's 8th grade NAEP proficiency test was 27.7% in math and 35.1% in reading. In terms of adults with a bachelor degree, Kentucky was the 5th lowest with a corresponding 15th lowest in terms of income at or above the national average.

The reason I mention all this is to demonstrate the poverty Kentucky experiences amid charges of corruption at the highest levels. Yelp. According to a Harvard study, Kentucky state government is one of the most corrupt in the country. Having been involved in politics for over 40 years, I can't say I was overly surprised by the report. Corruption comes in many forms, from outright bribery to the ever popular quid pro quo. I remember years ago a politician friend of mine telling me a rather amusing story to illustrate my point.

According to my friend, an older gentleman and incumbent, he had long been pressured to support a bill which he simply disliked; in fact, he hated everything about the bill. He was approached by fellow Representatives, by the party whip, by the bill's sponsors, and so on. Finally, after a particularly hard day, he retired to a popular watering hole to get away from all the BS and ponder how he was going to vote the following day. He had downed his second Scotch and water, when in walked one of the most beautiful women he ever saw. She was dressed professionally, but very enticingly all the same. She looked around and finally walked over, sat down beside him and asked his name, which he blurted out like some giddy school boy.

Feeling slightly chagrined, he finally managed to asked to buy her a drink, which she accepted with a smile. After a few more drinks (and more than a lot of flirtation), he paused, and then somewhat sheepish, apologized and said he forgot to ask her name. At that point, she leaned over, exposing her low cut blouse, and in a low sexy voice whispered into his ear, "I'm House Bill 123" (not the real number of course). He never said what happened after that, but hey, quid pro quo! House Bill 123 did pass by the way. Just saying.

Nevertheless, according to the report, compiled by the Harvard University Center for Ethics, Kentucky ranks third in terms of illegally corruption (only Arizona and California did it better). That's the typically dirty deals one usually thinks of when think about political corruption such as bribes, embezzlement, or rigged bids But when it comes to legal corruption, Kentucky is ranked number one in the country (finally, something we're good at besides basketball), coming in ahead of Illinois and Nevada which is saying something if you think about it for a minute! Legal corruption includes things like cronyism, extortion for votes, patronage, influence peddling, using work time for personal time, or nepotism.

Another example which I'm familiar is when an opponent openly violates election laws by campaigning inside the voting polls. By this I mean, handing people campaign literature as people as they signed in to vote or walking up to them as they entered the voting booth and passing out their campaign material. As with most places, Kentucky does not allow any campaigning within 300 feet of the polling place, and most certainly not inside the polling booth! This same example also included campaign signs well within the 300 feet limit of the polling place.

When disgruntled voters and other candidates called the Board of Elections to complain, nothing happened. They were told that there wasn't enough election officers to check out each location where the alleged violation was taking place, and, besides, unless they caught the offending individual in the act, there was nothing they could do! Oh, in case you're wondering how candidate and/or their supporters were able to do this in the first place, they were good friends who the poll workers who simply looked the other way! Another type of tried and true corruption is simply buying votes, either by good ole cash, or as one candidate did, by handing folks a box of Kentucky Fried Chicken as they left the polling place. Now, you can't get anymore "Kentucky Graft" than that!

As an aside, while not exactly considered corruption unless a government employee is being compensated in some way, is the removal of or tampering with political yard signs by opponents or one of the volunteers. Nevertheless, it's still a crime in Kentucky and most other states. In Kentucky it's a classified as "thief of property", a Class "A" misdemeanor which carries a one year in jail and $500 fine per sign. Anyone who defaces or otherwise destroys a political yard sign can be found guilty of a Class "B" misdemeanor for criminal mischief (third degree). This is punishable by 90 days in jail and a $250 fine. Naturally, they have to be caught in the act.

I've heard of an instance where a assistant vice principal of a public school would hire students to steal signs ($5 dollars for large signs and a $1 dollar for a regular yard sign). In some cases, public employees would be "hired" to steal signs, which can obviously be a fairly profitable business since yard signs often go out days or weeks prior to the election, signs are usually stolen late at night or during the wee hours of the morning while the general public is asleep; occasionally even replaced by the opponent's sign. Going hand-in-hand with this is where a public employee who supports a particular candidate, the candidate, or one of their volunteers attempt to intimidate a homeowner from putting out their opponent's yard sign. Of course, there has to be expectation that the threat was real. That too is a crime, and that too is part of the subtle corruption Kentucky politics is known for.

There are literally hundreds of dirty tricks just pertaining to campaigning alone, from convincing someone to run as a "ringer" in a race in order to draw votes away from your opponent, getting a business or union representative to bully groups into not endorsing your opponent (or simply buying them off), to laundering campaign contributions and finding ways to get donated money into the candidate's pocket. Speaking of endorsements, how about getting media oriented "endorsements" to buff up a candidate to make them look good? That can anything from correcting their misstatements to putting the right words in their mouths or just misquoting their opponent; whatever it takes to make them look good. Think it doesn't happen? Think again.

Lastly, another type of corruption which is popular, not just in places like Kentucky, but probably everywhere, is where legislators either refuse or delay to vote on bills which they believe may adversely affect key donors. Instead of hearing and deciding on the merits of a particular bill, they simply decide early on to vote it down, and usually, try and persuade their fellow members to do likewise (often with the tacit implication that if you support my vote, I'll support yours later on). A close cousin of this form of legal corruption is killing a bill in committee.

Before a bill actually makes it to the floor to be voted on, it has to go through at least one--usually more---committee in both the House and the Senate. An effective way to kill a bill is to make sure it never makes it out of committee. This is usually done on the basis of some "technicality" or pretense like needing "additional study" when the evidence is already clearly established. The upside is that occasionally there may be some legitimate issue which needs to be addressed before an informed decision can be made. On the other hand, this can be used to stop an otherwise good bill dead in its tracks.

One good example which is increasingly become overcome by the majority of state legislatures is over Marijuana. Some out-of-touch legislators ("old dinosaurs" as a friend of mine calls them) have tried to kill various bills proposing the legalization of the plant (or at least its decriminalization) for medical or recreational purposes. In a few cases, those leading the charge to stop passage of a bill out of committee have some undeclared vested interest such as ownership of land dedicated to another crop, stock ownership in potentially competing industries, or, as I said previously, donors who may be adversely affected (or if not them directly, then family or close friends). This too is a form of legal corruption which tends to get overlooked and shouldn't.

Now, if these kind of things can happen in a poor backwater state like Kentucky, can you imagine what happens in places like Nevada, Illinois, California, or worse, in Washington DC? These types of corruption, which some consider acceptable behavior, are a few of the reasons for imposing term limits and ending party lead gerrymandering. It's also why certain political offices such as Secretary of State and County Clerk, which oversee state and local elections, must become non-partisan, along with other non-law making political offices such as Treasury Secretary, Agricultural Secretary, State Auditor, and perhaps most importantly, State Attorney General. Locally, offices like Sheriff, County Attorney, Property Valuation Administrator, Circuit Court Clerk, Commonwealth Attorney (or the equivalent), Coroner, and similar offices should also be non-partisan and term limited (can you imagine any reason whatsoever why a Coroner or legal office needs to be partisan? Why would it even matter?). You would think that citizens would want these kind of positions to be non-partisan!

It's not until changes are made to the system that a state as poor as Kentucky can have any hope of changing things around and focusing on what really matters like children, education, nutrition, adding good paying jobs, and rebuilding a decay infrastructure. Of course, these type of changes need to be not just in Kentucky, but everywhere if we're to improve society. To quote President John F. Kennedy, "those who make peaceful revolutions impossible make violent revolution inevitable".



'Not enough jobs'. Nine of the 30 poorest counties in U.S. are in Eastern Kentucky


Kentucky Poverty Rate by County


Geographic disparity: States with the best (and worse) school


Harvard study: Kentucky's state government one of the most corrupt in the country




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