Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Former House Speaker Joe Clarke found dead

The Associated Press

DANVILLE, Ky. - Former state Rep. Joe Clarke, who spent a term as speaker of the Kentucky House and 20 years as the influential chairman of the House's budget committee, was found dead in his home Sunday.

Police said Clarke, 70, apparently shot himself and that a handgun was found near his body. "We believe it's probably a suicide at this time, but we're not sure," Danville Police Chief Jeff Peek said.

Peek said police received a call around 7:50 Sunday night from a friend of Clarke's family after Clarke failed to show up at church.

Boyle County Coroner James Ramey said Clarke died around 7 p.m. Sunday from a single shot through the heart. A note found at the scene suggested it was a suicide, though Ramey declined to give details.

Clarke, a Democrat, was speaker of the House in 1993 and 1994, elected because of a squeaky-clean image after his predecessor, Don Blandford, was convicted in a bribery scandal.

But Clarke was less assertive as speaker than he had been as a committee chairman, and he disclosed in April 1994 that he was being treated for alcoholism. Clarke lost his next leadership election to the current speaker, Jody Richards.

Clarke spent 28 years in the House, 1970 to 1998, representing Boyle and Washington counties at the end of his career. He also represented Garrard, Lincoln and Marion counties at one time or another.

Clarke had been in office just two years when he got the chairmanship of the Appropriations and Revenue Committee.

Governors held great sway over legislative affairs in those days, but Clarke turned out to lack the pliability of many of his predecessors.

"He was the first independent chair of Appropriations and Revenue," the current chairman, Democratic Rep. Harry Moberly of Richmond, said.

"Independent budgeting on behalf of the General Assembly was because of Joe Clarke and what he did to get our budget process out from under the complete control of the governor," Moberly said.

The bribery scandal, known by the FBI code name Operation Boptrot, brought down several other legislators in addition to Blandford. Moberly said Clarke, because of his reputation for honesty, "was tremendously instrumental in making sure that the General Assembly could get past that and still be effective."

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