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Ethics problems in Kentucky county government? Many have no ethics boards to look.

Lexington Herald-Leader logo Lexington Herald-Leader 10/14/2020 By Bill Estep, Lexington Herald-Leader

Dozens of Kentucky counties are failing to fully follow a law requiring financial disclosure by officials and having local boards to handle ethics issues, according to state Auditor Mike Harmon’s office.

Harmon said his office surveyed counties on the issue because it has referred findings about potential problems to county ethics boards, only to find there was no active board.

In addition to violating the law, the widespread county shortcomings could undermine confidence in government, Harmon said.

“Having a good ethics code and ethics board are crucial to ensuring the public’s trust in government,” said Harmon, a Republican.

The legislature approved a law in 1994 requiring counties and cities to adopt ethics codes.

The law came in the wake of a federal investigation of corruption in the legislature and reports of nepotism and other issues in local governments.

The law requires counties to have an ethics code that sets standards of conduct for officials — elected and appointed — and for employees, on issues such as conflicts of interest and receiving gifts.

As the survey by Harmon’s office noted, controls on conflicts of interest “help ensure that an individual’s personal interests do not overshadow the interest of the public,” while gift rules work against trying to gain favor with a local official.

Under the law, local ethics codes also have to require financial disclosure by officials and candidates; set up a board that can look into ethics complaints; and address the issue of nepotism, or hiring relatives of officials.

That doesn’t mean counties have to bar nepotism, just that they have to have a policy on it.

Harmon’s survey found that while all 120 counties adopted ethics codes as required, 52 hadn’t made any changes since putting the codes in place in 1994 or 1995.

Muhlenberg County didn’t respond to the inquiry.

The survey also found a significant problem in that 35 of the 120 counties didn’t have a local ethics board appointed as of Aug. 11, meaning there was no board to receive ethics complaints if a citizen wanted to make one.

Boards in some counties have never met because of a history of not getting any complaints, Harmon said in a release.

Three counties didn’t designate a board in their codes, and eight counties appointed boards only after receiving questions from the auditor’s office, the report said.

In 10 counties, the ethics code doesn’t require candidates for county offices to disclose financial information.

In three other counties, the code doesn’t include the required financial reporting, and officials in 26 counties acknowledged local officials don’t file disclosures annually, the report said.

One county official told auditors there was no way to enforce the reporting provision, but in fact, local ethics boards can impose fines for not filing a disclosure, the report said.

On the issue of nepotism, ethics codes in four counties didn’t include a policy. Those were Clay, Laurel, Leslie and Powell — a “direct violation,” according to Harmon’s bulletin.

In Allen and Monroe counties, the ethics policy was a single sentence saying that “employment of members of families of officials or employees of the county will be allowed,” according to the report.

That meets the legal requirement to have a policy, but without more explanation it “does not seem to be in the spirit of the ethics law,” Harmon said in a release.

Codes in most other counties generally required that any relatives of officials had to be qualified to get hired and can’t receive more pay than similar employees, but varied in details.

For example, codes in nine counties say elected officials can have only one relative on the payroll, while codes in nine others limit the number of immediate family members officials can hire, but don’t include adult children who don’t live with the official in that definition, according to the report.

The Butler County code bars officials from hiring their immediate family, but does not define spouses as immediate family.

The report said that nepotism “poses risks in the workplace due to matters of public perception, including that relatives are not as closely supervised as others.”

The survey, which has a summary on each county, also found a lack of training for many ethics-board members.

Harmon’s office contacted the Kentucky Association of Counties about training opportunities and the organization has developed classes for local officials.

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©2020 the Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, Ky.)

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