FRANKFORT, Ky. — A state ethics commission says Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin did nothing wrong when he purchased a home from a campaign donor for more than $1 million below a county’s assessed value.
Bevin and his wife bought the house for $1.6 million from Neil Ramsey, a friend who the Republican governor has appointed to the Kentucky Retirement Systems board of trustees.
In dismissing the complaints, the Executive Branch Ethics Commission unanimously ruled Thursday that “nothing in the Ethics Code prohibits two public servants from engaging in a financial transaction or giving each other gifts.” But they told Bevin his lieutenant governor should decide whether Ramsey is reappointed to the board when his term expires to avoid a conflict of interest.
The five-member commission includes three Bevin appointees and two named by former Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear. A spokesman for Bevin declined to comment, saying he would “let the dismissals speak for themselves.” The dismissals were first reported by KentuckyToday.
Taxpayers furnish Bevin and his family with an 18,000-square foot Governor’s Mansion with 18 rooms. But most of that house is public space, with the top floor reserved for the governor and his family. Bevin’s lawyer has said it wasn’t enough space for the Bevins, who have nine children.
In March, Bevin bought the 8,000-square-foot home in Anchorage, a wealthy suburb of Louisville. The Jefferson County Property Valuation Administration values the property at $2.9 million. Bevin challenged that value , and an appeals board is expected to make a decision after inspecting the property next month. The city of Anchorage says the property is worth $2.2 million. Jefferson County says its worth $2.9 million.
Richard Beliles, chairman of Common Cause Kentucky, filed a complaint with the ethics commission in May. Democratic state Rep. Darryl Owens filed a second complaint in June. The complaints accused the governor of using his position to “personally enrich himself” by obtaining a good deal on a nice house. They also accused Bevin of rewarding Ramsey for giving him a break on the price. One day after the sale was completed, state officials extended a contract with a company partly owned by Ramsey. The state also certified an assisted living facility owned by Ramsey.
Kentucky’s ethics code bans public officials from accepting gifts over $25 from anyone doing business with the state. But the commission said that doesn’t apply in this case because Ramsey’s contract isn’t with the governor’s office but with the state Finance and Administration Cabinet. The commission previously ruled that the governor is not considered a supervisor for every executive branch agency.
The commission said it could revisit the matter should later evidence emerges that Bevin “personally influenced or directed a subordinate to influence” the state to renew Ramsey’s contract or certify his assisted living facility.
The commission met privately Monday to consider the complaints. It decided that, even if the allegations were all true, none would violate the state ethics code, according to a letter sent to the complainants.
Meanwhile, Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear said he is considering investigating whether any laws were broken. The commission ruled Monday that Beshear should not investigate Bevin if he intends to challenge him for governor in 2019. Beshear has said he is reviewing that opinion.
Bevin has denied any wrongdoing and has blamed the media for producing stories “based on fabricated information.” Bevin told WVHU radio this week he can identify with what President Donald Trump is going through amid an investigation of whether Russia influenced the 2016 presidential campaign.
“There is something to be said for the similarities between the two,” Bevin said. “I don’t worry about taking one step back. Perception can be what it is in people’s minds.”