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The slow erosion of respect for government




Sigh.

Reading about the ownership of land on which a new courthouse is going to be built in Pikeville, I just get weary. Some of it is owned by state Supreme Court Justice Will T. Scott and members of his family.

Then there was a companion story in The Herald-Leader, which said the son of Chief Justice Joe Lambert is on the payroll of a firm that’s been the financial adviser on 70 percent of the new courthouses built across Kentucky between 1998 and 2006. I read that too, and it made me weary.

This isn’t major corruption. It’s isn’t state Treasurer “Honest Dick” Tate absconding to Brazil with $250,000. It isn’t the Earle Clements dump truck deal. It isn’t BOPTROT.

It’s just more of the same old cozy stuff that has robbed Kentucky government of its credibility, as long as I can remember.

It’s the kind of thing that has, in particular, convinced Eastern Kentucky folks for generations that their local courts and judges are open to influence, if not downright captive of powerful local interests.

Scott waved away questions about the Pikeville property, insisting there’s no conflict of interest because he didn’t even want to sell it.

Let’s see now, according to the story by Brandon Ortiz, in 1996 Scott and his mother bought what is now his office in Pikeville, from relatives, for $150,000. Betty Scott gave her son her interest in two subsequent deed transfers. The local PVA put the property’s value at $150,000 in 2004.

Scott told Mr. Ortiz that, despite the fact he doesn’t want to sell, he’ll accept the offer of $360,000.

Big of him. Chief Justice Lambert has called the building of all those new courthouses his “greatest legacy.” But that brings up another tiresome aspect of this situation: Pikeville is getting a new courthouse, even though the current facility is only 17-plus years old.

Kentuckians get tired of public spending that doesn’t seem to get the job done. In this instance, taxpayers shelled out $7.3 million in 1990 for a combination jail/courthouse in Pikeville, but it’s already a shabby relic.

Circuit Judge Eddie Coleman explains that it was poorly built. The Lexington newspaper offered this rundown of Coleman’s complaints: The walls and foundations are cracked, the roof leaks and there are heating and air conditioning problems. In addition, the building is no long big enough to handle growing caseloads … It also does not meet current security standards … Parties, witnesses and court personnel all use the same entrances and elevators … And you must go through the jail to get to the current courthouse.”

Nobody noticed these layout problems back in 1990? Nobody thought it was necessary to plan for growth? Nobody checked the construction, to see that it was going to hold up for at least a few years?

Sigh.

Kentuckians yearn for at least a minimum of competence and forethought in pursuit of public policy. And they certainly want at least the appearance of fairness and independence in the justice system.

It’s not really the big scandals that erode public confidence in government, or that promote cynicism and, ultimately, indifference. It’s the slow accretion of compromise … the piling up of little copouts and cozy arrangements … the winks and nods and knowing smiles.

David Hawpe is the editorial director for the Courier-Journal in Louisville, where this column originally appeared.


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