A grand jury indicted Gov. Ernie Fletcher on misdemeanor charges Thursday, accusing him of illegally rewarding political supporters with state jobs since taking office two years ago.
Fletcher was charged with conspiracy, official misconduct and violating a prohibition against political discrimination.
Fletcher spokesman Brett Hall said the Republican governor was not surprised, given Democratic Attorney General Greg Stumbo's ongoing investigation into the administration's hiring practices.
"This has been a politically motivated, media-driven investigation from the start," Hall said. "Governor Fletcher has said repeatedly his conscience is clear. He has done nothing wrong. We are evaluating the charges, and, likewise, we are studying our recourse of action in the wake of this malicious prosecution."
For nearly a year, the special grand jury has been investigating whether the Fletcher administration broke state law by basing personnel decisions on political considerations.
Blanket pardon disputed
Thirteen other current and former administration officials and associates were previously indicted on misdemeanor counts, and the grand jury handed up another 14 sealed indictments Thursday. Last summer, Fletcher pardoned everyone in his administration other than himself who could be charged in the case, although a legal debate continues over whether a blanket pardon issued before charges are filed is valid.
Fletcher, the first Republican elected Kentucky governor since 1967, centered his 2003 campaign on a promise to "clean up the mess in Frankfort." His Democratic predecessor, Paul Patton, had been tarnished by a highly publicized extramarital affair.
Fletcher's indictment alleges that he conspired with other administration officials on a hiring scheme dubbed the "Governor's Personnel Initiative."
Administration officials, according to the indictment, crafted an elaborate system of screening job candidates and ran background checks on prospects' political affiliations and donations.
Fletcher has repeatedly denied any political patronage scheme and said his administration's internal review uncovered no violations of state law. The indictment said those denials form part of the conspiracy.
The grand jury also charged Fletcher with discriminating against a former state transportation employee, Mike Duncan.
Duncan sued Transportation Secretary Bill Nighbert and the agency Wednesday, alleging that he was fired last year because he was a Democrat who gave money to the campaign of Ben Chandler, Fletcher's Democratic opponent in the 2003 gubernatorial election. Nighbert has denied that the firing was politically motivated.
Democratic House Speaker Jody Richards called the indictment a "sad day in the history of our commonwealth."
"My reaction is that we simply have to let the grand jury perform its function, and let our system of law work itself out," Richards said.
Senate Majority Leader Dan Kelly, R-Springfield, called the indictment a politically motivated abuse of power by Stumbo.
The grand jury is set to expire May 19, but Scott Crawford-Sutherland, a prosecutor in the attorney general's office, said earlier Thursday that he expected to request an extension.