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Says county judge is violating ethics code




To the Editor:

At the May meeting of the Letcher County Fiscal Court, Judge/Executive Jim Ward presented major changes to the Ethics Code. As a member of the group that wrote the original Ethics Code in 1995 and as the chairman of the first Ethics Board, I am alarmed. Judge Ward guts the definition of “Family Member,” “Nepotism,” and “Financial Disclosure.” He strips the definition of “Public Servant.” He also allows “Temporary Employees,” whether family members or not, to be free of having to comply with the Ethics Code.

The Ethics Code insures that every citizen in Letcher County has an equal chance for employment. The purpose of the Ethics Code is to make sure that NO county office is used as an employment office for family members of elected officials. It prevents an elected official from hiring family members of other elected officials, as a way to repay past or future election support. It is a law that insures that elected officials and county employees do not hire, make purchases or make business decisions that personally benefit themselves, their family members or businesses in which they have an interest.

Judge Ward redefines “Family Member” as only: spouse, parent, child, brother or sister. He purposely deletes: grandparent, grandchild, father-in-law, mother-in-law, brother-in-law, daughter-in-law, son-in-law, stepfather, stepmother, stepson, stepdaughter, stepbrother, stepsister, half brother, half sister, and others living in a public servants’ household.

“Nepotism” is defined as the hiring of family members. The current Ethics Code states: “No family member of a county officer shall be initially employed or appointed to a position in any county governmental agency in the same county in which the officer serves.” This means that no family member of an elected official or public servant can work for ANY county office. Judge Ward wants to change this to: “No family member of an elected county officer shall be initially employed or appointed to a position for which that elected county officer makes the decision or has a vote on who is hired for that position.”

Judge Ward’s Ethics Code only restricts an elected official from voting on hiring a family member, which is already illegal by law. For example, a magistrate CANNOT vote to hire his spouse to work at the senior citizens center as a cook, but the other magistrates and county judge CAN vote to hire her under Judge Ward’s Ethics Code. Judge Ward’s Ethics Code will allow elected officials to hire family members of other elected officials. For example, the county attorney could hire the sheriff’s wife. It will not prevent an elected official from hiring family members of other elected officials, as a way to repay past or future election support.

“Financial Disclosure” forces elected officials and public servants to show their wealth and business connections. They cannot vote, purchase or do business in a way that will personally benefit themselves, their family members or businesses in which they have an interest. The current Ethics Code says: “The following individuals shall be required to file a financial disclosure statement: 1) Elected Officers; 2) Candidates for elected office; 3) Management personnel such as Chief deputies, departments heads; 4) Officers and employees with procurement authority exceeding five hundred dollars per purchase; 5) Ethics Board members; 6) Economic Development Board members.”

Judge Ward is weakening the Ethics Code by removing parts 3), 4) and 5), thus removing accountability from management and financial personnel, and Ethics Board members. Judge Ward’s Ethics Code states: 1) Elected officers; 2) Candidates for elected office; 3) Members of the Water and Sewer Board; 4) Members of the Tourism Board; 5) Members of the Economic Development Board. This change could allow those that he wants removed, to abuse their positions and authority, to benefit themselves or others. To his credit, he has a good idea by adding the Water and Sewer Board and the Tourism Board to the individuals who must comply with the Ethics Code.

Judge Ward totally removes the definition of “Public Servant,” and by doing so, opens the door for abuse of power. The present Ethics Code defines “Public Servant” as: “all county government elected officials, county government appointed officials, and county government employees, whether compensated or not, whether full-time or part-time.”

Judge Ward adds a clause that excludes temporary employees, including interns, student workers and summer program workers from all parts of his proposed Ethics Code. Judge Ward offers no definition of “temporary.” A person could be “temporary” for years, so this opens the door for abuse.

There are two questions here. Why do we need to make changes to an Ethics Code that has been effective and in place for twelve years, and why does Judge Ward want to make these changes? In the Mountain Eagle’s report on the May meeting of the fiscal court, Judge Ward is quoted as saying he is making these changes to “clarify the Code,” but he is gutting and removing important parts of the Ethics Code and adding parts that are confusing and could lead to abuse. Judge Ward’s changes will do nothing but weaken the Ethics Code, make it easier to hire family members and hide connections between public servants and those the county does business with.

Every citizen in Letcher County should have an equal chance for county employment. Judge Ward needs to “clarify” his intentions, not the old Ethics Code. Judge Ward and this county government are in violation of the present Ethics Code pertaining to Nepotism and Financial Disclosure. He has hired individuals who are in violation of the “Nepotism” clause, and he and most of the elected officials are in violation of filing their “Financial Disclosure” statements. Judge Ward needs to correct these violations, not change the Ethics Code to meet his political purposes.

JOHN CLEVELAND Blackey


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