FRANKFORT, Ky. — A Kentucky judge has stripped the voting privileges from a Kentucky Retirement Systems board member in the latest twist over the battle for control of one of the worst funded public pension programs in the country.
Thomas Elliott has been battling Republican Gov. Matt Bevin for months over his service on the governing board for the Kentucky Retirement Systems, which covers pension benefits for state employees. Last month, Franklin Circuit Court Judge Phillip Shepherd ruled that Elliott could temporarily serve on the board until the case was resolved.
But Elliott skipped the next two board meetings, one because of a previously scheduled work meeting and another because he feared the governor might use state troopers to arrest him if he tried to participate in the meeting after Bevin had filed an emergency request before the Court of Appeals.
The last time Elliott tried to attend a board meeting Bevin ordered troopers to arrest him if he participated. But Elliott’s actions in skipping the meetings angered Shepherd, who noted his court order specifically banned Bevin from using state troopers to arrest Elliott. Last week, Shepherd called Elliott’s excuses “wholly inadequate.”
Tuesday, attorneys for Bevin asked Shepherd to dissolve his order and ban Elliott from participating in board meetings, questioning his commitment to the board. Elliott testified in a court hearing Wednesday that he had never missed a meeting prior to August, and he pointed out at least one other board member who also skipped the meeting Elliott did not attend.
Thursday, Shepherd decided to let Elliott participate in the meetings, but would not let him vote. The board had been scheduled to meet Thursday, but cancelled because it said not enough members could attend.
Shepherd said he still thinks it is “a very serious question” whether Bevin has the authority “to terminate, without cause, the service of a Board member who has been duly appointed by a prior governor to serve a term of years.” But he said Elliott’s failure to attend the two meetings resulted in “a material change” that prompted him to revise his ruling.
“Mr. Elliott should have been aware of these meetings,” Shepherd wrote.
Elliott said he would abide by Shepherd’s ruling and is not likely to appeal it.
“I have great respect for the court,” he said. “Whatever the court’s decisions are and whatever their ultimate conclusion is, that’s acceptable to me.”
The Kentucky Retirement System has just 17 percent of the money it needs to pay benefits over the next 30 years, making it one of the worst funded systems in the country. In addition to removing Elliott from the board, Bevin abolished the board of trustees and replaced them with a board of directors, adding several new members. Elliott, and Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear, say Bevin’s orders are illegal.
The case is one of several asking the court to limit Bevin’s authority, all of which are being heard in Shepherd’s court.
“These are vitally important questions concerning the structure of state government, the separation of powers, and the scope of the Governor’s executive authority,” Shepherd wrote.