Saturday, October 4, 2003

Governor's ex-lover's guilty plea

Abuse of office

A guilty plea to federal mail fraud by Kentucky Gov. Paul Patton's former paramour leaves her the only one charged with a crime in the sordid sex-for-favors scandal. Thursday, Tina Conner, 41, again accused Patton and transportation secretary Jim Codell of abuse of office and voiced indignation outside the federal courthouse in Lexington.

"This is a chilling message to whistleblowers," she said. Conner is Patton's former mistress, and sought several dubious government favors through her special relationship with the governor. Her claim to sacrificial whistleblower status is absurd. The plea deal reportedly calls for her to receive probation instead of up to a maximum of 20 years prison time for mail fraud, although she is not scheduled for sentencing until Jan. 8, after Patton leaves office.

Conner's mail fraud charge arose from her seeking state certification of her former husband's construction company as a "disadvantaged business enterprise" and falsely listing herself as the company's operator. The company did get a $30,000 contract. She now accuses Patton and Codell of pressuring state workers to bend the rules that she wanted bent. Constituent Conner also accuses Patton of using state inspectors to retaliate against her now-bankrupt nursing home, Birchtree Healthcare, after she broke off her affair with the governor. She thought she had a grant of immunity from prosecutors when she spoke out to the news media, but it applied only to what she told investigators.

Patton hasn't been charged with a crime and said he doesn't expect to be. He claims there was nothing wrong with acting as a go-between for a constituent and the bureaucracy - even when the constituent was his girlfriend. 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 promote vehicle-enforcement officer Monty Clark, at Conner's request. A hearing is scheduled for Nov. 17, only three weeks before Patton's term ends. Patton's conduct has been disgraceful. Kentucky investigators should vigorously pursue the question of whether the governor and others abused their offices. This should not be another case of cover-up and damage control in Frankfort.

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