Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Big Ern, The Weasel and "Honest" Dick: An inside view of Kentucky's worst

Note: Terry Boyd of Insider Louisville contributed to this report.

Ah, it’s spring, and the scent of corruption and generally poor governance is wafting gently on the breeze here in Louisville. (Certainly more entertaining than the tree pollen to follow.)

LEO’s Philip Bailey got the jump on the Courier-Journal last week with “It’s not easy being Green,” his story about Dr. Judy Green, 1st District metro councilwoman.

Green has, uhm, issues related to very poor judgment – everything from tax evasion to creating a bogus “jobs programs” with her “Green Clean Team.”

Last summer, the Green Clean Team program ground to a halt after the city auditor tried to figure out what happened to the $55,000 grant to fund the program. (Oddly, Dr. Judy and husband James Green owe $55,000 to the Internal Revenue Services, a bill going back to 1998. How does that work?)

The finding – shockingly, a lot of the money went to 12 Green family members “working” in the program. The rest apparently evaporated into the ether, and nothing was accomplished except getting other Metro Council members out of their overall stupor long enough to start ethics proceedings.

The CJ followed up with a story about how the president and treasurer for 100 Black Men confirmed that the group had a side deal with Judy Green to request more city funding than needed, then redirect a portion of the cash at Green’s direction.

Oh, and then there’s the matter of the $25,000 Dr. Judy and her husband ran up on the credit card of Judy Green’s legislative aide, Andrea Jackson, a credit card the councilwoman took out with out Jackson’s consent!

To their credit, CJ reporters did a great job in 2005 of covering Green’s habitual failure to pay taxes - just the trait you want in an elected government official - and much of Bailey’s reporting in “It’s Not Easy Being Green” is built on their work

You can bet there’s more.

But the truth is, Dr. Judy is a jay walker when compared to the true greats in Kentucky's pantheon of rotten pols – underhanded overachievers who stole massive amounts of money, or acted a fool while doing massive damage to the democratic process, to the public trust and to the people who put them in office.

With the help of court documents, Google, Wikipedia, the Encyclopedia of Louisville, our faulty memories and the more reliable memories of some well-connected insiders, we’ve come up with a quick list of the worst Kentucky pols, mainly because it's fun, and we're tired of writing about medical stuff.

(When dealing with the most disillusioning human failings, we at Insider Louisville like to affect a cheerful, sardonic tone. But there’s nothing funny about corruption. Nothing rots away the foundation of a society like rampant, systemic corruption.)

1.) Wallace “The Weasel” Wilkinson, Kentucky governor from 1987 to 1991

Though a tiny little feller, Gov. Wallace Wilkinson was a true heavy weight conniver, and an actual early prototype for Ponzie schemer Bernie Madoff.

The best place to start with this story is at the end – after he was governor – when Wilkinson defrauded his closest friends and associates in a scheme to cash out in the Tech Bubble of the late 1990s.

When it all went bad after the bubble burst, Wilkinson at least had the grace to die shortly after the courts revealed the scale of his misdeeds.

According to court documents, Wilkinson had gotten millions in loans “to invest” for his friends, business luminaries and former cabinet members including $25 million from Wendy’s restaurant founder Dave Thomas, $12 million from Milo Bryant, his former transportation secretary and $5.5 million from Leonard Lawson, the road contractor.

This is from Wikipedia:

In 2001, a group of Wilkinson's creditors filed suit to have his companies seized. During the ensuing bankruptcy proceedings, Wilkinson admitted that his liabilities exceeded his assets by $300 million. During the proceedings, it was revealed that Wilkinson had been financially insolvent since 1992 and was operating a Ponzi scheme, paying his creditors with money borrowed from others rather than his own profits. He had paid no federal income taxes since 1991. At his deposition in June 2001, Wilkinson invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination over 140 times.

If this was how he lived his personal life, think what kind of politician he was. And yes, there was so much more before that when he was governor - too much for one post - including the Boptrot scandal and WiIlkinson’s dealings related to a Frankfort hotel.

Because of term limits, Wilkinson couldn’t run for a second term. So he got his wife Martha – a character along the lines of Granny Clampett, but without Granny's sophistication – to run in his stead, a candidacy that went nowhere.

Oddly, I remember one big success. Believe it or not, it used to be legal in Kentucky to strip mine land without the owner’s consent! Under Wilkinson, the law changed to where you now must have the owner’s consent.

All that said, Wilkinson was the best pol I ever saw in person. I was a cub reporter at the Kentucky Standard in Bardstown, and I watched as Wilkinson worked the local Democratic clubs. He’d remember absolutely everyone’s name and when they’d last met. And for a few minutes, the guy seemed genuinely happy, chain smoking and shaking hands. That doesn’t change the fact that he hurt the state and a lot of people, most of whom were his “friends.” – Terry Boyd

James William "Honest Dick" Tate

2.) James William "Honest Dick" Tate, former Kentucky state treasurer from 1867 to 1888

Don't let the name fool you. This was one Dishonest Dick.

After a successful run as assistant secretary of state and a stint as assistant clerk of the Kentucky house, Tate was elected treasurer of the commonwealth in 1867 and proceeded to win elections every two years afterward for the next 20 years.

An immensely popular man with a huge following, Tate was considered to be "Treasurer for Life" and was seen as being above reproach. Hence the "Honest" moniker. But by the end of his reign, he became the poster boy for term limits, nearly all of which are still in force today.

In 1887, an idea took hold among the legislature that it may be a good idea to begin auditing the books. It was an idea Tate disliked so greatly that he was able to stall the formation of an audit commission for nearly a year " get his books in order." Backed into a corner, Honest Dick whipped out his ultimate weapon.

From Wikipedia:

In the first quarter of 1888, Tate began a pattern of behavior that would have aroused considerable suspicion in a man of lesser repute. He began depositing only checks in the state's bank account, instead of cash, as was usual. In a short period of time, he paid a number of personal debts. On 14 March 1888, Henry Murray, one of Tate's clerks, noticed him filling two tobacco sacks with gold and silver coins later determined to be worth about $100,000. He departed for Louisville, leaving a note saying he would return in two days. Again, due to the nature of his job and his perceived record of trustworthiness, nobody found his actions questionable. After a week passed with no word from Tate, it became clear what had happened. Records would later show that, after a few days in Louisville, Tate boarded a train for Cincinnati, and then vanished, leaving his wife and daughter behind.

The resulting investigation revealed The Dick to have misappropriated, embezzled and otherwise stolen a quarter of a million dollars. He is believed by family to have died in China. – Brian Tucker

3.) William Stansbury, aka “Wild Bill Studsbury,” Louisville mayor from 1977 to 1982

Everyone of a certain age remembers Mayor Bill Stansbury and his infamous 1978 "trip to an Atlanta conference." Stansbury disappeared at the height of a strike by firemen. With the whole city one random match strike away from incineration, Stansbury already was on fire. Instead of toiling away at that gummint conference in Atlanta, he was actually slung up in New Orleans with his then administrative assistant – later second wife – Mary Ellen Farmer.

That was the titillating part of his administration, which – not surprisingly – nearly didn't make it one term after the Board of Aldermen threatened to impeach Stansbury. The really crappy part came a few months later when federal investigators tied Stansbury to a city official who admitted extorting $16,000 from local businesses. The investigators claimed that some of the money had gone to Stansbury personally.

As in all epic tragedies, he paid big time. Stansbury and his mother were struck and killed by a motorist in 1985 as they walked across Bardstown Road on their way to church at St. Francis of Assisi. (Are you listening, Dr. Judy? Yeah, that's Karma talkin'.) – Terry Boyd

Gov. Ernie Fletcher

4.) Ernie "Big Ern" Fletcher, Kentucky governor from 2003 to 2007

No discussion of bad politicians would be complete without the inclusion of the Commonwealth's 60th governor and "man of the cloth," Gov. Ernie Fletcher.

There was trouble from the start of the Fletcher campaign when running mate Hunter Bates was unceremoniously thrown off the ballot by a judge that agreed with a complainant's contention that Bates did not meet state residency requirements. Bates, an aide to Mitch McConnell, had been found to be a resident of Virginia.

After settling on Steve Pence for lieutenant governor, Team Fletcher turned back primary challenges from Steve Nunn (yes, that Steve Nunn) and Rebecca Jackson to become the Republican nominee.

Fletcher bested an inept and confusing campaign by Democrat Ben Chandler to win the governor's race in what some say was the only win he would enjoy in Frankfort.

The following years brought tax increases, budget disputes, accusations of wrongdoing and a severe merit system hiring scandal that culminated in several grand jury indictments, including of Fletcher himself. (In August, 2006, Fletcher signed a deal with the Kentucky Attorney General admitting wrong-doing and agreeing to reconstitute Kentucky's Personnel Board.)

Another low-water mark in the state's national reputation came when the governor's airplane, while en route to Ronald Reagan's funeral in Washington, D.C., suffered a "communications malfunction" causing the evacuation of the U.S. Capitol building and the U.S. Supreme Court.

Media footage of the incident showed a man in an expensive suit fleeing the capitol while screaming, "Run for your lives!" The event prompted late-night comedians to hire staff to write new jokes about Kentucky's governor, in what turned out to be the only jobs Fletcher created as governor.

In 2006, Fletcher caused a stir in the labor community for his support of so-called "right to work" legislation and advocating the repeal of state prevailing wage requirements. A massive protest in Frankfort by organized labor targeted Fletcher's proposal and the bill was soundly defeated.

With echos of Wisconsin, 2011, labor leaders say Fletcher's greatest accomplishment was to have single-handedly – and accidentally – re-energized organized labor in Kentucky.

An embattled Ernie Fletcher narrowly won a primary challenge and went on to lose miserably to current Gov. Steve Beshear. He now lives with wife Glenna in a van down by the river. – Brian Tucker

Doug Hawkins

Also ran: Doug Hawkins, Louisville Metro Council representative, 25th District from 2003 to 2011, and the punchline to many jokes

Doug Hawkins, by all accounts, was not a corrupt politician. He was just a jerk.

Elected to the 25th District seat at the inception of Louisville Metro Government, Doug earned his seat the old fashioned way – by making last minute robo-calls claiming his opponent was a militant lesbian whose campaign was being funded by militant lesbians. He was known about town as "a man who would gripe with a ham under each arm," and as someone desperately seeking media attention.

A South End transplant from the Highlands, Doug Hawkins always aspired to higher office. That goal was apparent in every move he made in his career. He has been described as a cocky, less likable version of Kentucky Senate President David Williams – if you can imagine that.

In the early years, Hawkins' main legislative initiative was to rename the Jefferson Memorial Forest after Ronald Reagan. After that brazen failure, he took advantage of a lazy local media in creating the myth of a "bomb storage facility" beneath the Cardinal Hill Reservoir, prompting scared citizens to cower in fear.

Doug's common theme in governance was to apply a thick layer of pomade, run to the news media and proceed to blame former Mayor Jerry Abramson for everything bad that had ever happened anywhere in the world, all the while spreading fear and hatred.

On a personal level Doug held many heavy grudges, several times refusing to press the flesh with his opponents. In one instance, he turned his back on a pregnant woman who had attempted to shake hands with him because she was a Democrat. Stay classy, Doug.

Arrogant, brash, disrespectful and paranoid, Hawkins refused to cooperate with the council in any meaningful way, thereby alienating the citizens of the 25th District. His political career ended with a paltry 2-3 record. – Brian Tucker

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