By Daniel Desrochers

and Jack Brammer

Lexington Herald Leader via Kentucky Press News Service

Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin launched a political feud with Attorney General Andy Beshear when he announced in 2016 he would hire an outside law firm to investigate what he called "questionable activities" in the administration of Steve Beshear, his Democratic predecessor and Andy Beshear's father.

Three years and more than $500,000 later, that investigation is far from over. As Bevin faces a tough campaign against Andy Beshear to keep his office, the Bevin Administration says there is more to come.

"A draft report with additional findings is in progress, but its release has been impeded by the refusal of former Beshear employees to comply with subpoenas," said Pamela Trautner, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Finance and Administration Cabinet.

The Andy Beshear campaign is expecting the worst.

"Matt Bevin knows that he has been a weak governor and will lose if this race is about his record," said Beshear campaign manager Eric Hyers. "So instead of running a clean campaign about the challenges facing working families, he hides behind partisan investigations and uses state employees and taxpayer-funded contracts to do his dirty work. His lowest approval rating of any governor in the country shows that voters are tired of these distractions."

Neither Bevin's press office nor his campaign staff responded to a request for comment and on election night the Republican governor told reporters he didn't know what they were talking about when asked about the state contract to investigate alleged wrongdoing in the Steve Beshear Administration.

"Any questions about this race at all or about this election?" Bevin said. "I don't even know what that is about."

Any report on alleged corruption in the Steve Beshear Administration has the potential to make a splash in what is expected to be an ugly general election. Bevin and Republicans have railed about past Democratic corruption and Andy Beshear's association with a former staffer who was accused of accepting political bribes.

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from the front page

Bevin called for an investigation into his predecessor's administration on April 19, 2016, the same day the personnel cabinet secretary from Steve Beshear's administration, Tim Longmeyer, pleaded guilty to soliciting more than $200,000 in political bribes for state businesses.

In a five-page, prepared statement Bevin demanded an inquiry into actions taken by Beshear Administration officials.

"We have learned from rank-and-file state employees of closed door demands by high-level Beshear administration officials that they make contributions to Democratic candidates in the last election, including the party's candidates," Bevin said that day. "Employees have stepped forward on numerous occasions and explained how they were essentially coerced and that they complied out of fear of loss of their jobs or other retribution. This investigation is preliminary, but we've learned enough to have significant concerns."

After nine months and $457,717, the Indianapolis-based law firm Taft Stettinus & Hollister released a report that "revealed a pattern of Beshear Administration officials intentionally disregarding and violating Kentucky laws that forbid soliciting state employees for financial contributions."

The donations were primarily sought for the campaigns of Jack Conway and Andy Beshear, as well as the Kentucky Democratic Party and "The Capitol Club," a fundraising group founded during Beshear's first term. No evidence has been presented that suggests either Beshear or Conway knew of the alleged impropriety.

Pamela Trautner, the spokeswoman for the Finance Cabinet, said the report led to several referrals that resulted in ethics violations and fines for five former Steve Beshear Administration officials: Tim Longmeyer, William Ryan, Walter Gaffield, Charles Geveden and Erik Dunnigan.

Based on documents from the Executive Branch Ethics Commission, the Taft report did not play a large role in those charges.

Longmeyer, Beshear's former personnel secretary and the former deputy attorney general under Andy Beshear, pleaded guilty in federal court before the investigation began.

Geveden was cited by the Executive Branch Ethics Commission in 2014, two years before the investigation began, and retired from state government in 2011.

The ethics commission initiated investigations of Ryan and Gaffield in July 2016, a month before Taft was hired. It is unclear what role the Taft report had in their eventual citations.

Dunnigan was cited in July 2017 for representing a company before a state agency in a matter he was involved in during the last 36 months of his tenure as a state employee, which is unrelated to the report's focus.

Trautner said there are "multiple other referrals, which are still pending investigation/resolution."

She declined to identify any of the additional referrals or say who has refused to comply with subpoenas, but there is at least one ongoing lawsuit and three more people were named in the Taft report -- two of whom currently work for Andy Beshear.

Joyce Wilcher, a former executive secretary to Longmeyer, was accused of contacting politically-appointed state workers in the personnel cabinet for the purpose of collecting money and encouraging political volunteer work. She also was accused of telling an employee that "they" were tracking financial contributions made to the Kentucky Democratic Party and were aware of which employees were making them.

State records now list her as an executive administrative secretary in the attorney general's office.

Rebecca Goodman, the former executive director of the office of legal services in the Transportation Cabinet, was accused of pressuring politically-appointed state workers to make contributions to former Gov. Beshear's reelection campaign and Democrat Jack Conway's gubernatorial campaign.

State records show she is now an executive director in the attorney general's office.

Both women denied the allegations in Taft's report and Beshear's office repeated its statement from January 2017 when asked about the allegations.

"If Matt Bevin believed that wrongdoing occurred, he should have sent his allegations to sworn law enforcement in the Kentucky State Police or Executive Branch Ethics Commission to investigate," said Crystal Staley, Beshear's spokeswoman. "The fact that he refused, and instead hired the law firm that also represented the Kentucky Republican Party, showed Bevin's real motivations. The report issued by the law firm was incomplete and sloppy -- it was even labeled as a draft -- and not worth the tax dollars that paid for it."

The ethics commission is not allowed by law to confirm or deny whether it is investigating Wilcher or Goodman.

In June 2018, the law firm's contract was renewed and it was awarded an additional $500,000 for the 2019-2020 fiscal year. So far, $97,125 of the additional money has been spent.

The Finance Cabinet said the law firm continues to work on Finance Secretary William Landrum's efforts to subpoena former Beshear administration official Frank Lassiter in an investigation of contracts awarded to a computer company that Lassiter went to work for after leaving the Beshear Administration.

The Kentucky Court of Appeals last November reversed a ruling from Woodford Circuit Court and ruled that Landrum could subpoena Lassiter for both testimony and documents. The case is now pending before the Kentucky Supreme Court.

Democrats contend the investigation is politically motivated.

"Matt Bevin is desperately trying to use taxpayer resources for his own political benefit because he's too weak to run on his own record," said Marisa McNee, the spokeswoman for the Kentucky Democratic Party. "Of course, he's going to resort to these types of dirty tricks and pathetic distractions."

Beshear has had to walk a fine line in his relationship with his father. He has acknowledged that his father helped get him elected and accepted his help on the campaign trail in the closing days of the primary election, but Be-shear contends he has built his own reputation as attorney general.

The Republican Governor's Association, though, launched a television ad shortly after the primary election that said "For Andy Beshear, politics and influence peddling is the family business."

Bevin could bolster that political attack by releasing another investigative report that contains more accusations of ethics problems in Steve Beshear's administration, but some Democrats think that strategy might backfire on Bevin.

"I think the optics would not be good," said Jonathan Miller, a Democrat and former state Treasurer. "And so I would think that the smart minds around the governor would hesitate to try to do anything too dramatic during a general election campaign."

But Tres Watson, the former spokesman for the Republican Party of Kentucky, said any future report would be seen as part of an ongoing investigation into corruption.

"It's the governor's role to uncover corruption in the previous administration," Watson said. "There was a lot and it has taken a long time. It has nothing to do with who the nominee is, sorry if the Democrats nominated the son of the former governor."