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February 28, 2006

Bluegrass Politics: The Day of Reckoning is very near

“I am running for governor to clean up the mess in Frankfort and end the bygone era of good-ole boy politics that has held our great commonwealth back for too long. We need new leaders with rock-solid values and integrity in Frankfort to end the cycle of scandals, waste, fraud and abuse.” —Candidate Ernie Fletcher on why he should be elected governor in 2003Ask a voter how he or she views what’s going on in Washington or Frankfort these days, and chances are the first printable reply will be “corruption.”For good reason.This week, federal prosecutors submitted their sentencing memorandum following the conviction of former U.S. Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham, R-Calif., for accepting $2.4 million in bribes in exchange for steering government work to defense contractors.Contained in the memorandum, written on one of Cunningham’s congressional note cards, was a “bribery menu” that showed an escalating scale for bribes. It began at $140,000 and a luxury yacht for a $16 million Defense Department contract. Each additional $1 million in contract value required a $50,000 bribe, dropping to $25,000 per additional million, once the contract went above $20 million.So goes the culture of corruption that has rocked our political system over the past few years.From the criminal indictment of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, to perjury charges against top White House aide Lewis Libby, and the conviction of Republican super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his promise to implicate dozens of members of Congress and staff, it would seem things are out of control and getting worse in Washington.But don’t overlook happenings here in Kentucky. In just the past week, Gov. Ernie Fletcher’s legal and political problems have only deepened as he entered his third week in the hospital for health problems.Last Friday, Fletcher appointed two campaign contributors as “special justices” to the Kentucky Supreme Court to hear just one case:  his own last-ditch appeal in the ongoing Merit System criminal investigation. The vacancies occurred when two current justices disqualified themselves from the case because of their own conflicts of interest.Fletcher’s actions brought immediate cries of cronyism from Attorney General Greg Stumbo, and calls for the appointees to step aside by editorial boards and commentators (including me; I filed a judicial ethics complaint earlier this week demanding the same).Many view Fletcher’s recent actions as another example of stonewalling and gaming the very system he promised to clean up when he was narrowly elected two years ago, after decrying decades of corruption by previous administrations.But Fletcher’s recent action is quite consistent with his conduct throughout this entire investigation.Since last summer, Fletcher has gone from promising voters they did nothing wrong, to calling it a political “witch-hunt,” to invoking the “everyone else did it too” defense, to granting a blanket pardon to everyone who had been indicted or might still get caught, to firing staff for their conduct, even while defending the legality of their actions, to asking the court to order a cessation of further indictments and preventing the grand jury from issuing a final report.But Franklin Circuit Judge William Graham refused to play along.So did the Court of Appeals when a panel of judges ruled unanimously that the grand jury could proceed. Desperate for something to stop this investigation, Fletcher knew he had one last chance before reaching the end of the legal line — the state Supreme Court — and rather than appoint two temporary justices to hear his final appeal who the public could believe were unbiased, he opted for two significant campaign contributors.It’s too early to tell whether these two men will refuse to be used as Fletcher’s political football and step aside, or be forced to by the court, but the public is one hurdle away from finally getting a clear view of the full scope of corruption under the Fletcher-Pence administration.As we’ve seen with the convictions of Abramoff and Cunningham and the indictments of Libby and DeLay, the political scum at the bottom of the ocean is beginning to rise to the surface. It’s not pretty, and it certainly makes our stomachs churn, but we are beginning to treat this political cancer and, from all accounts, the Day of Reckoning is near for those who dared betray the public’s trust. At long last. Mark Nickolas is a former Democratic political consultant and publisher of Kentucky’s most widely read political blog, BluegrassReport.org. Contact him at Mark@BluegrassReport.org