- The Washington Times - Friday, June 9, 2006

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Gov. Ernie Fletcher pleaded not guilty yesterday to charges stemming from a state hiring scandal — a plea that was entered by his attorney while the governor remained on vacation in Florida.

Mr. Fletcher was indicted last month on charges of conspiracy, official misconduct and political discrimination over the purported hiring of political allies for protected state jobs.

Judge David Melcher yesterday set Nov. 8 for the start of his trial.

A grand jury has been investigating accusations that members of Mr. Fletcher’s administration based hiring decisions on politics rather than merit, as required by law. It has issued 29 indictments, but last summer Mr. Fletcher pardoned everyone in his administration but himself who might be charged.

Mr. Fletcher’s personal attorney, R. Kent Westberry, appeared in court to enter the governor’s pleas to the misdemeanor charges . Mr. Fletcher, who court records indicated was in Palm Beach County, was not required to appear.

Governor’s spokeswoman, Jodi Whitaker, declined to say what Mr. Fletcher was doing at the time of his arraignment.

“It’s a personal vacation, and therefore his daily itinerary is personal as well,” Miss Whitaker said.

Assistant prosecutor Scott Crawford-Sutherland said outside court that lawyers had agreed to limit their public comments about the case.

“Governor Fletcher is like any other criminal defendant. He enjoys the presumption of innocence. It is critical that he receive a fair trial,” Mr. Crawford-Sutherland said.

Mr. Fletcher, a physician, is Kentucky’s first Republican governor since 1971. The indictment purports his administration crafted an elaborate system of screening job candidates and ran background checks on prospects’ political affiliations and donations.

The grand jury began investigating after a Transportation Cabinet whistleblower turned over hundreds of internal administration e-mails and memos on hiring decisions.

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