It’s disgraceful that the leadership in a government office where problems have grown like kudzu would force out its brightest light: a public servant widely regarded as the foremost expert on the Bluegrass State’s nationally recognized open records and open meetings laws.
Amye Bensenhaver spent 25 years in the Attorney General’s Office, now overseen by Andy Beshear.
Bensenhaver actually served the people and made a positive difference by enforcing transparency policies with a true commitment to making government at every level more open and accountable.
But now she’s out, writing in a letter to Beshear that she was retiring early “under considerable duress.”
Her departure comes after Beshear’s office reprimanded Bensenhaver for speaking with John Nelson, retired editor of the Danville Advocate-Messenger and former Kentucky Press Association president.
Nelson, a champion of government transparency, interviewed Bensenhaver for an excellent article he wrote commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Kentucky Open Meetings and Open Records Laws.
She also was criticized for refusing to sign an open-records decision with which she disagreed and for removing or correcting factually incorrect footnotes from rulings.
Shouldn’t Beshear be praising Bensenhaver for such integrity rather than accusing her of “a lack of good conduct and a poor performance of work duties,” as his office did?
The reprimand also stated “your actions … have severely damaged your credibility and the trust that this office must have in you as an attorney.”
Bensenhaver’s nearly 2,000 legal opinions forced government entities to operate in the open when too many of them would prefer to keep questionable – sometimes even corrupt – activities hidden from public view.
But this patriot did more than just issue opinions.
She helped reporters, organizations and citizens — who simply wanted to know more about how public officials operated — navigate the process of making government more transparent.
Last year, Bensenhaver helped the Bluegrass Institute, my organization, prove that a Kentucky Board of Education subcommittee formed to hire a search firm for a new education commissioner operated improperly.
Bensenhaver explained that the institute first had to give the board an opportunity to either accept or deny its complaint. Then, an appeal could be made to the Attorney General’s Office, if needed.
While the board denied the complaint, the appeal was successful as former Attorney General Jack Conway ruled the committee failed to comply with the law.
Now there are indications the ruling resulted in a more serious approach toward open meetings laws.
The institute requested in its complaint that “the KBE conduct a training session for its members during a future regular webcast meeting with an Open Meetings expert from the Attorney General’s office,” which we envisioned Bensenhaver would conduct.
While that didn’t happen, Bensenhaver’s help and the attorney general’s positive ruling have borne fruit.
Milton Seymore, a new board member appointed by Gov. Matt Bevin, confirmed that the board’s legal advisers “from day one – on the first day of orientation” started briefing members on their responsibilities regarding open meetings and records.
Rest assured, it’s not Bensenhaver’s “credibility” or “lack of good conduct” that’s suffering here.
This whipping comes from an attorney general who, during his first year in office, has lost two top lieutenants – one for drunk driving and another who’s facing prison after pleading guilty to bribery.
Beshear claims to be an advocate of open government, and has chastised the University of Louisville and the University of Kentucky for violating open-meeting statutes.
However, those stances seem disingenuous in light of how his office humiliated and forced out arguably the single-most effective and knowledgeable advocate of Kentucky’s sunshine laws while hiring drunks and corrupt officials as top advisers.
The jury will be out for a long time on the credibility of Beshear’s commitment to open government and his general decision-making ability.
Let’s hope the verdict in the end is more favorable than his treatment of Bensenhaver.
Jim Waters is president of the Bluegrass Institute; Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read previously published columns at www.bipps.org.