Unless you move in media circles you probably don’t remember hearing of an attorney named Amye Bensenhaver.
For 25 years, through a long succession of politically ambitious Kentucky attorney generals, Bensenhaver was the steady hand who wrote most of that office’s open records and open meetings decisions.
That includes a number of opinions issued at the behest of The Paducah Sun involving everything from financial records of government entities to closeddoor meetings of the Murray State University Board of Regents. Neither we nor any of the state’s news organizations always prevailed. But her decisions were consistently apolitical and legally expert. They gave deference to provisions written into both laws that the legal analysis should always begin with a presumption of openness. Her opinions under a 1992 revision to the laws carried the force of law unless challenged and overturned in the courts, which proved a relative rarity.
Bensenhaver retired from the office recently at the age of 58. But she did not go quietly.
Ostensibly she left after a particularly harsh reprimand she received from her superiors in the office of Attorney General Andy Beshear. Her offense: speaking to a reporter without permission. She commented for an article commissioned by the Kentucky Press Association about the 40th anniversary of Kentucky’s openness laws.
It was hardly a case of going rogue. The article was as innocuous as apple pie. Bensenhaver and Louisville attorney Jon Fleischaker (who wrote portions of the laws) are the state’s foremost experts on the laws and their history. But the rebuke from La Tasha Buckner, executive director of Beshear’s Office of Civil and Environmental Law, was harsh, saying “(you) have severely damaged your credibility and the trust this office must have in you as an attorney.”
Certainly there is irony in the fact that the chief arbiter of the state’s laws on government openness — and most state employees for that matter — may not speak to reporters without permission. Bensenhaver admits she made a mistake. “I accept responsibility. I did violate a policy,” she said.
But she told the Lexington Herald-Leader that the reason for her departure goes well beyond the reprimand. Specifically the newspaper reports she “felt pressured to leave because her superiors under Beshear kept interfering in open government decisions for which she was responsible, ordering changes that did not strengthen the transparency laws.”
She also told reporters she took issue with political meddling in an open meetings opinion issued by the office in a high-profile dispute between Beshear and Gov. Matt Bevin. It concerned the latter’s removal of Louisville banker Bill Elliot as head of the board overseeing Kentucky’s woeful public employee pension funds. Elliott was an appointee of Beshear’s father, former Gov. Steve Beshear.
We criticized that opinion when it was issued, saying Beshear had perverted the Open Meetings Act in a cheap play for political advantage. Our view is thus reinforced.
We think it should be more than a little disturbing to the public when someone like Bensenhaver — long respected across ideological lines as a fair and professional arbiter of the law — is driven out of her post by political gamesmanship. It evidences a corruption of the office by which the public’s right to know is, even now, the loser.