- Associated Press - Thursday, May 19, 2016

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) - The battle to control one of the country’s worst-funded pension systems escalated on Thursday as Kentucky’s Republican governor used state police officers to prevent the ousted chairman of the retirement system board from participating in a meeting.

Gov. Matt Bevin removed chairman Thomas Elliott from the board last month, but Elliott refused to leave before his term ends in 2019, setting up a tumultuous week in Kentucky politics.

Elliott got support from Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear, who issued an advisory opinion on Tuesday saying Bevin lacks the authority to remove Elliot, whose term had been extended by his father, outgoing Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear. Bevin’s pick to replace Elliott - Madisonville dermatologist William Smith - turned down the offer on Wednesday. The governor then picked Louisville accountant Mark Lattis for the job.

When Elliot showed up for Thursday’s board meeting, he said the governor’s representatives told him to leave, and that if he did not comply, “that there were state police in the building prepared to arrest me.”

“I walk away feeling like I have just been in an episode of ‘House of Cards,’” he said.

The governor’s spokeswoman, Amanda Stamper, said Elliott left voluntarily and was not threatened with arrest.

“Elliott was simply reminded of the valid executive order removing him from the board. In effect he would be disrupting the meeting, which is against KRS 525.150, a Class B misdemeanor,” Stamper said.

Elliott said the presence of state troopers who followed him into the meeting and stood nearby as he sat in the audience meant that leaving was “not necessarily a voluntary option.”

Bill Thielen, the executive director of the Kentucky Retirement systems, said, “It felt like I was in North Korea.”

Thielen also announced he would retire effective Sept. 1. Thielen had previously agreed to stay at the most through 2018, but said Thursday it would be better for everyone if he retired.

Kentucky has one of the worst funded pension systems in the country, with an estimated debt of more than $30 billion across separate systems for teachers and state workers.

The governor removed Elliott because he blamed the 13-member board for defeating a bill that would have required the system to use the same competitive bidding process used by the rest of state government, and to disclose more information on its website. Thielen has said Elliott and the board did not take a position on that bill, but Thielen had personally urged lawmakers not to pass it until the state completes an audit of the retirement systems.

Bevin’s actions Thursday were “a ruthless and reckless abuse of executive power,” said Jim Carroll, co-founder of the Kentucky Retirement Retirees advocacy group.

Kentucky Public Retirees President Paul Guffey said it was unfortunate police were involved, and that “the crisis facing the Kentucky Employees Retirement System for non-hazardous retirees is far greater than personalities clashing over issues.”

Thielen said the board is “exploring our legal options” and would likely schedule a special meeting to decide what to do next.

Elliott said he feels bewildered and bullied by the governor, but he’s “not really in a position to answer” whether he’ll challenge his ouster in court.

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