Ethics Issues Seeping Into U.S. Senate Campaigns; State Auditor Critical of N. Ky. Airport Board

by John Gregory | 08/25/14 1:01 PM

The U.S. Senate candidates had their first joint appearance since Fancy Farm as Sen. Mitch McConnell and Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes debated agriculture policy at the Kentucky Farm Bureau headquarters in Louisville last week.

The panel on this weekend's Comment on Kentucky discussed that meeting and other developments in the Senate contest, as well as the release of an audit criticizing the management of the state's busiest passenger airport.

The settings of the Fancy Farm and Kentucky Farm Bureau appearances illustrate the different strengths of the Senate candidates, according to Philip Bailey of WFPL-FM in Louisville. He says Grimes excels in a more rough-and-tumble format like Fancy Farm, where McConnell does better in forums more focused on detailed policy discussions like the Farm Bureau meeting. Bailey also notes that Grimes tends use words and body language that play to bigger audiences who may watch on television rather than to the individuals present at the particular event.

At the Farm Bureau presentation, Bailey says McConnell's primary message was that as Senate Majority Leader, he would bring unprecedented power to play for the citizens of the commonwealth. Grimes, on the other hand, asked what McConnell's 30 years of experience has actually delivered for Kentucky farmers. To illustrate her point, she criticized the senator for missing meetings of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Sam Youngman of the Lexington Herald-Leader says Grimes has to be careful about making attendance an issue in the campaign. He says McConnell has a nearly perfect overall attendance record in the Senate, so Grimes needs to consider how her argument could be turned against her. But Youngman contends McConnell is at risk of playing into the Grimes' argument that the Senator has "gone Washington" by avoiding mundane committee meetings that may have an impact on the lives of ordinary Kentuckians.

The next scheduled joint appearance by the candidates is on KET's Kentucky Tonight on Oct. 13. But Bailey reports that the two camps are still discussing a possible meeting at Centre College in Danville.

Questions Linger about Grimes Bus and McConnell Breakfast
Allegations of impropriety by both Grimes and McConnell surfaced last week. Politico reported that Grimes rents her campaign bus from her father's company at rates that appear to be lower than fair market value, which would violate federal campaign finance laws. The Kentucky Republican Party has filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission over the issue.

Youngman says he didn't give much importance to the story when it came out last Tuesday, but that he started to pay more attention when the Grimes campaign gave a series of differing explanations. Since Grimes is still unknown to a significant number of voters, Youngman says this gives the McConnell camp an easy issue with which to define Grimes. Philip Bailey says the story also shifts focus away from McConnell's wife, Elaine Chao, and her work for a foundation funding anti-coal activities, to Grimes' father, state Democratic Party operative Jerry Lundergan, and his past ethics charges.

"Any time Grimes gets a good narrative going against Sen. McConnell, these fumbles happen, and her relatively inexperienced campaign staff walks right into them," Bailey says.

Later in the week, the National Journal posted a story detailing how McConnell treated Delta Airlines CEO Rick Anderson to breakfast in the private Senate Dining Room, and then a week later received a $10,000 contribution from the executive. Kentucky Democrats have asked the Senate ethics committee to investigate the donation.

Youngman notes that Anderson has donated to McConnell since 2004. Plus, this particular contribution went to the senator's leadership PAC to support other GOP candidates, so McConnell can't directly benefit from Anderson’s money.

"This is what people don't like about Washington: this kind of coziness, this kind of pay-for-play," Youngman explains. "It doesn't seem like [McConnell] did anything illegal, it doesn't seem like he did anything the ethics committee is going to have a problem with, but it looks terrible."

Airport Audit Calls for Reorganization
Kentucky Auditor Adam Edelen released his review of the Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky Airport last week. Amanda Van Benschoten of The Kentucky Enquirer says the audit came after an investigation by her paper revealed spending and travel issues by the 18-member board that governs the Covington facility.

Van Benschoten reports that the Kenton County Judge-Executive appoints nearly three-quarters of the board members, including all seven voting members. The state audit says that results in an unprofessional board that operates like a good-old-boy club, which has left the airport with fewer flights and higher passenger fares.

To modernize airport operations, Edelen's office suggests shrinking the board to 11 seats while diversifying who appoints the members. Under the auditor's plan, judge-executives in Kenton, Boone and Campbell Counties would appoint six board members, and Kentucky's governor would select two members. The remaining three seats would be appointed by the mayor of Cincinnati, the Hamilton County (Ohio) Board of Commissioners, and the governor of Ohio.

Van Benschoten says the suggestion that Ohio be allowed to select board members has stirred controversy among some Kentucky officials. But she notes that it’s a reasonable suggestion since the airport is a critical economic engine for both states.

"If we have a more professionally run board, as most of our peer airports do," Van Benschoten explains, "we will get a more professionally run airport and more flights, and that's ultimately the bottom line."

Watch the full Comment on Kentucky program to see more on these issues as well as discussion about how the state will benefit from the Bank of America mortgage fraud settlement, and the recent testimony before the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals over Kentucky's gay marriage ban.

–The opinions expressed on Comment on Kentucky and in this program synopsis are the responsibility of the participants and do not necessarily reflect those of KET.