By Charles Wolfe
The Associated Press
LEXINGTON - Tina Conner, ex-mistress of Gov. Paul Patton, pleaded guilty to mail fraud Thursday, then expressed indignation that she alone has been charged with a crime.
"This is a chilling message to whistleblowers," she said.
Conner, 41, admitted to a federal judge that she tried to get her former husband's construction company certified for contracts that were set aside for companies headed by women and minorities. The application for status as a "disadvantaged business enterprise" listed Tina Conner as the company's operator.
She could be sentenced to as much as a year in prison under federal sentencing guidelines, but prosecutors agreed to recommend probation. U.S. District Judge Joseph M. Hood set sentencing for Jan. 8.
"I have accepted responsibility for my actions," Conner said outside the federal courthouse. She said other people who were involved, "obviously had something to hide."
She singled out Patton and his transportation secretary, Jim Codell, whose cabinet ran the disadvantaged-business program.
Conner claims Patton and Codell pressured workers in Codell's agency to approve the application for ST Construction, which eventually got a single contract worth about $30,000, according to the plea agreement.
Patton, a Democrat, acknowledged the affair, which ended his chance of running against Republican U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning in 2004. He says he did not misuse his power and only asked Codell to have the ST Construction application reviewed. Patton says it is proper for a governor to be an intermediary between a constituent and bureaucrats.
Conner said Patton's denials were "malarkey." She said she told Patton that workers in the Transportation Cabinet were questioning the application. She said Patton later told her he had spoken with Codell, and said her problem would be resolved.
Conner said that, in preparing for trial, her attorneys obtained government documents showing Patton and Codell refused to cooperate with investigators and that Codell invoked the Fifth Amendment.
Her lead attorney, Thomas E. Clay, later said Codell was never called to a grand jury because his attorney told investigators that Codell would invoke the Fifth Amendment, a constitutional right to avoid self-incrimination.
Codell's attorney, William E. Johnson of Frankfort, confirmed that a subpoena was issued but that Codell never testified. He declined further comment.
At the time of their affair, Conner, a nurse by training, was among Patton's political and patronage contacts in western Kentucky.
She had multiple business interests, including Birchtree Healthcare, a nursing home that later went bankrupt. Conner claimed Patton turned state inspectors loose against Birchtree in retaliation for her ending their relationship.
Conner said she wanted to "tell the judge that I truly feel remorseful" at the arraignment, but Hood said she could speak at sentencing.
Patton declined comment on Conner's guilty plea Thursday. He has not been charged with a crime and has said he does not expect to be. But he does face administrative charges by the Executive Branch Ethics Commission, which accuses him of misusing his power.
The commission says Patton improperly intervened with the Transportation Cabinet to get a promotion for a vehicle-enforcement officer, Monty Clark, at Conner's request. A hearing on the ethics charge is scheduled Nov. 17, three weeks before Patton's term ends.
Conner said she would testify in the ethics case, pursue a legal case against Patton and possibly sign for a book deal.
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