Sex Scandal Roils Kentucky Statehouse

By: - October 9, 2002 12:00 am

In July, Kentucky Gov Paul Patton, one of the state’s most popular leaders in recent times, got himself elected chairman of the National Governor’s Association and was moving toward a U.S. Senate race in 2004.

Three months later, Patton’s once-promising political career is in shambles after he publicly confessed to an extramarital affair. He faces a federal investigation into whether he abused his office, and has announced he probably won’t run for the Senate in two years.

The story has gotten national attention, with a headline in the New York Times referring to a “Clinton-Like Drama” in Kentucky. Meantime, whispers of resignation circulate around Kentucky’s small capital city of Frankfort.

Patton, a 65-year-old Democrat, has just over 13 months left as governor and will likely spend that time under scrutiny. The FBI, the state Attorney General’s office and the state’s Executive Branch Ethics Commission are all looking into whether he abused his influence to help a Western Kentucky nursing home owned by Tina Boyd Conner, 40, with whom he had a two-year relationship.

After initial denials, Patton tearfully admitted the affair, but said he didn’t abuse his office. “I apologize to the people of Kentucky for my failure as a person,” Patton said in a slow emotional tone. “I have already apologized to (wife) Judi and my family.”

The scandal could affect the state’s budget battle — the Republican-controlled state Senate was already jousting with Patton over his proposal to include public financing of the 2003 governor’s race in the next state budget. It could affect Kentucky’s 2003 statewide elections. And Patton once destined to be remembered for sweeping reforms in higher education is likely to leave office with a tarnished legacy.

If the allegations about Patton’s actions toward the nursing home are true, he could have violated the federal law prohibiting public officials from using their office to help or harm someone financially.

The prospects for impeachment aren’t likely, as the Democrats hold a two-thirds majority in the state House of Representatives. Patton has said he won’t resign, but there is a growing drumbeat for him to do so.

A conservative group called the American Family Coalition of Kentucky has started a petition drive for Patton’s resignation or impeachment.

State Rep. Bob Heleringer, a Republican, is thus far the only legislator to call for Patton’s resignation.

“Even in the post-Clinton era, there still needs to be some class and dignity in politics,” Heleringer said. “Because of what we already know has transpired, the governor should resign.”

Donald Gross, a political science professor at the University of Kentucky, said there’s not enough evidence of criminal wrongdoing for Patton’s resignation yet.

“Much of the public is taking a wait and see attitude,” Gross said. “I don’t think much of the public sees either side sympathetically.”

Former Kentucky Gov. Julian Carroll, who held the office from 1976 through 1980, commended Patton for bowing out of politics.

“He needs to work on restoring himself to a solid foundation to continue as governor,” said Carroll’s, whose own administration faced investigation. “I see no reason whatsoever, with 14 months left in his term, why he should resign. That wouldn’t be in the best interest of Kentucky.”

Patton, announcing that he “does not anticipate” any future political campaigns, gave himself some wiggle room to get back into the race against U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning should the scandal blow over.

But that’s not likely, said Louie Nunn, the last Republican to hold the governor’s office from 1967 to 1971.

“We need to wait for the voice of the people on this issue, and he needs to search his own conscience,” Nunn said. “To run for the Senate or any other office in the near future would be difficult. He certainly didn’t do himself any favors.”

Louisville business man Charles Owen and state Treasurer Jonathan Miller are being mentioned as likely Democratic Senate primary candidates in Patton’s absence.

Attorney General Ben Chandler, who is running in the Democratic primary, could have the most to lose or gain from the scandal in the 2003 governor’s race

“He has to undertake this investigation seriously or the public won’t stand for it,” Gross said. “On the other, he has to be careful about not greatly alienating the Democratic party. But it could also be a great advantage. This could give him a boost or he could actually be hurt quite a bit.”

But Patton has repeatedly said he welcomes any investigation, and the public will be pleased with the outcome.

“I think they will be reassured if they find that under tremendous pressure, I did not in any way compromise the integrity of the state regulatory system,” Patton said in a press conference last week. “I think that will be the outcome, and I think that will be reassuring to the people of Kentucky regardless of how they feel about me as an individual.”

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