Baptist-preacher-turned-Governor of Kentucky Ernie Fletcher took The Fifth today in an appearance before a grand jury. (The Bluegrass Report has lots of information, and Talking Points has picked the story up as well.) The jury is investigating charges that the newly installed Fletcher administration ignored civil service laws when they purged state government of Democrats and installed in their place workers from Fletcher's campaign.
Fletcher refused to testify today based on his Fifth Amendment rights. The Fifth Amendment, of course, is popular with Republicans only when Republicans, themselves, are accused of some crime. When it's just some street thug, well, let the bastard hang. (Remember when Attorney General Ed Meese said only guilty people were under suspicion, and that the Fifth Amendment just got in the way?)
Before ducking conveniently behind the Fifth, Fletcher thoughtfully pardoned everyone in his administration, bringing a halt to investigations expected to lead to even more indictments, and causing the state Attorney General to hint that he might hand his files to federal prosecutors, out of Fletcher's reach.
Fletcher announced his blanket amnesty while standing in the rotunda of the state capitol. As a display of what passes, in this administration, for integrity, Fletcher didn't pardon himself.
The story of the Republican purge broke a few months ago. One of the displaced civil servants dumped a file of incriminating emails onto the desks of the Attorney General -- embittered Democratic governor wannabe Greg Stumbo -- and Kentucky's largest newspaper, the Louisville Courier-Journal. Both opened aggressive investigations, and both found lots of people around the state perfectly willing to bitch on the record about how and why they'd been fired from their civil service jobs.
The Republicans screamed that the investigations were politically motivated, a fact so obvious it's comedic they'd even bring it up. Political motivation is part of why we have a two-party system: It forces everyone toward honesty, because the other side is always there, waiting to pounce. The key to success is to not do anything to egregious that the other side has anything to work with. To which the Fletcher Administration seems to asnwer only a resounding, "Ooops!"
After weeks of the drip-drip-dripping of incriminating details out into the public domain, there are now plenty of facts that conflict with Fletcher's dramatic declarations of innocence. For example, his defense of a policy initiative that seemed to be nothing more than a clearinghouse for political favors was dismissed like this by the Associated Press:
He also said the Local Initiatives for a New Kentucky - LINK - was not a re-election effort within his office, but aimed at providing services to constituents. An e-mail from a former Fletcher administration official described LINK's reason for being as to get Fletcher re-elected.
I live and work surrounded by Republicans, some of whom are highly active in state politics. Even before the scandal, they were getting pretty tired of Fletcher. The first Republican governor of Kentucky since, if memory serves, the 12th Century, Fletcher took office and immediately squandered his political capital and precious time on issues that even the True Believers didn't think worthy.
For example, in violation of the axiom that you don't pick fights with people who buy ink by the barrel, he announced that he would no longer answer questions from the Courier-Journal. The CJ is to Kentucky Republicans what the New York Times is to the national party, the horrible liberal media bodeyman made manifest.
The newspaper, of course, was delighted. Reporters cheerfully submitted even the most innocuous questions ("How are you today, Mr. Governor?") in writing, and then the paper's editorial page kept the paper's readership abreast of which questions the governor's office answered and which it ignored. It reprinted the questions day after day, with a little scorecard showing how long it had been since the question had been submitted. After a couple of months of looking like a complete idiot, the governor relented.
In the meantime, Fletcher's Minister of Culture -- maybe that's not his real job title, but you get my point -- incited a brouhaha when he announced that employees in Kentucky's beautiful state parks would no longer be allowed to wear tattoos. This policy eliminated not only the goth teenagers and trailer lowlife the Republicans wanted to eliminate. In the quest to turn the parks into tourist attractions suitable for the country club set, the tattoo ban also eliminated most Navy and Marine Corp veterans. The Fletcher Administration instituted this policy just in time for the outbreak of the Iraq War and the accompanying rise in public appreciation for military service.
Fletcher attracted national media attention only once, when he caused the evacuation of the Capitol Building in Washington the day before President Reagan's funeral. It seems his private plane wasn't in proper communications with the tower at Reagan National, and when he swooped down over the Potomac the Air Force mistook him for an incoming terrorist. Kentuckians don't appreciate hillbilly jokes, especially when the governor plays straight man.
The events of the last couple of days are doing nothing for Fletcher's survivability. Democrats are talking impeachment based not only on the facts of the scandal itself and the apparent cover-up, but also given the obvious: It's tacky for a governor to take the Fifth. Republicans are circling the wagons, but with a kind of going-through-the-motions lethargy that makes me think Fletcher's not long for public office.
Senator Mitch McConnell, who more or less runs the Republican Party in Kentucky, is sufficiently disgusted with Fletcher that he's distancing himself from his one-time protegee. The night after Fletcher announced his pardons, the Governor was conspicuously absent from a McConnell fundraiser. Conspicuously present -- right up there on stage with the Senator himself -- was Lieutenant Governor Steve Pence. Young, handsome, personable and as charming as Fletcher is arrogant, Pence has been spending a lot of time within handshake distance of McConnell. It makes a fellow wonder if maybe he isn't going to be governor sooner than one might expect.
We'll see what the next few weeks bring. One way or the other, it's going to be entertaining.