Ethics panel: Beshear shouldn’t investigate Bevin if he might run for governor

Attorney General Andy Beshear shouldn’t investigate Gov. Matt Bevin if he might run for governor in 2019, a state ethics panel advised Monday.

As long as Beshear, a Democrat, is considering a gubernatorial bid, he should refer any investigation of Bevin to a separate law enforcement entity, the Executive Branch Ethics Commission said in an advisory opinion.

Deputy Attorney General J. Michael Brown sent a letter to the Executive Branch Ethics Commission in May asking whether it would violate ethics rules that govern political rivals if Beshear investigated Bevin’s purchase of a Jefferson County house from a political supporter at a price well below its assessed value.

Whether Beshear can investigate the Republican governor without potentially violating state ethics code is entirely dependent upon if he runs for governor in 2019. If Beshear were to declare tomorrow that he doesn’t plan to run, there would be no ethical issue with his investigating Bevin.

However, if Beshear does declare his intent to run — even after any investigation has concluded — he could potentially be in violation of the ethics code, the commission advised.

“All of these answers are qualified in assuming he will run for governor in 2019,” said Kathryn Gabhart, executive director of the commission.

The board, which consists of three Bevin appointees, voted 4-1 in support of the advisory opinion. Beshear could choose to ignore the opinion if he wishes.

Brown, who penned the letter sent to the ethics commission, was critical of the opinion.

“I think it has a chilling effect,” Brown said. “I think you can’t force somebody in that position, particularly when you don’t know if there’s an actual conflict or you don’t know if there’s any personal interest involved.”

Beshear expressed interest in investigating Bevin following newspaper reports that the governor bought a mansion in the Louisville suburb of Anchorage from Neil Ramsey, a friend and political donor, for $1.6 million in March. The Jefferson County property valuation administrator values the house and 19-acre tract, of which Bevin now owns 10 acres, at $2,974,000.

Citing Ramsey’s appointment by Bevin to the Kentucky Retirement Systems Board of Trustees, Brown called the purchase “a gross example of pay-to-play” in his May 17 letter to the ethics commission.

A spokesman for Bevin did not respond Monday to a request for comment. Bevin has previously said there was nothing unethical about the purchase, claiming the house is worth less than what he paid for it. He also has rejected the notion that becoming a trustee of the state’s troubled pension systems is a political reward.

Bevin’s lawyer is scheduled to challenge Jefferson County’s valuation of the property at a hearing Wednesday.

The ethics commission also likely considered two complaints Monday that alleged Bevin broke state ethics rules when he purchased his Anchorage home. The ethics commission, though, does not comment on complaints unless or until it takes action.

Bevin has called the complaints “political mumbo jumbo.”