- Associated Press - Friday, March 21, 2014

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - Five current or former state officials - including a former lawmaker and agency chief - must pay a combined $21,500 in ethics fines for offenses that include pressuring state workers for campaign donations and using a state contract to ship a privately owned alligator skin to a Georgia taxidermist.

The Executive Branch Ethics Commission unanimously approved settlement agreements for five people on Friday, including former state Rep. Charles Geveden Sr. and Jonathan Gassett, the former commissioner for the Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, Tourism Arts and Heritage Cabinet.

The commission fined Geveden $5,000 for using his influence as deputy secretary of the Justice and Public Safety Cabinet to access his employees’ private telephone numbers. Geveden then called those workers at home and told them how much they should donate to Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear’s 2011 re-election campaign - amounts ranging from $500 to $1,000.

The case marks the first time the commission has fined someone for pressuring state employees to make political donations, according to John Steffen, the commission’s executive director.

“This is the first time anybody has ever really said you can’t use your position to solicit campaign donations from state employees across the board. Not just merit employees, but non-merit employees,” Steffen said. “It’s using one’s position to put pressure on one to donate. He didn’t threaten anybody with losing their job specifically. But if the boss calls you and tells you donate $500, the implication is there.”

J. Guthrie True, Geveden’s attorney, said Geveden was the victim of political gamesmanship. He said the chairman of the Kentucky Republican Party filed the ethics complaint against Geveden so the Republican candidate for governor would have something to talk about it during the 2011 Fancy Farm Picnic, Kentucky’s largest political gathering.

“I would take issue in the strongest terms possible that Charlie even implicitly threatened anyone or did anything in an environment that could be perceived as threatening. That’s just not Charlie Geveden at all and no such conduct occurred,” Guthrie said. “It’s been disappointing to Charlie that he has been used as somewhat of a political football and that the commission staff really even chose to participate in that.”

Steve Robertson, the Kentucky GOP chairman, said he was “very glad there has been an admission that improper things occurred while raising funds for the 2011 gubernatorial race.”

“The only question that now remains, that may never be answered, is who instructed Mr. Geveden to engage in this activity,” Robertson said.

The Executive Branch Ethics Commission cited Geveden for ethics violations in December 2012. Last year, Democratic Attorney General Jack Conway declined to prosecute Geveden on criminal charges.

The settlement agreement notes that Geveden “was not aware at the time that his actions were in violation of the Executive Branch Code of Ethics.”

The commission also fined Gassett $7,500 for nine counts of ethics violations, including ordering state workers to pump out the flooded basement of his house and using the state’s contract with FedEx to ship the skin of an alligator he had killed to a taxidermist in Georgia.

Gassett resigned in September during an investigation by the Office of Inspector General. The Executive Branch Ethics Commission cited Gassett for ethics code violations in January. Steffen called the $7,500 fine “one of the larger ones we have ever issued.”

But Gassett’s attorney, Luke Morgan, said any mistakes Gassett made were “unintentional and minor in scope.” Morgan said he showed the commission proof that Gassett paid $1 more to use the state’s FedEx account than he would have paid had he used a private account.

Dr. Gassett stands by his record of the many successful accomplishments of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife during his 14 year tenure,” Morgan said. “But he is also sorry for any disruption in the high quality of service at fish and wildlife which is then caused by this.”

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