Federal crime-fighters started an outreach campaign Friday to recruit Kentuckians to help uncover government corruption and end the state’s “fairly sordid” history of scandals that rob trust in government, law enforcement officials said.
The FBI’s “End Corruption Now” campaign includes an anonymous, toll-free tip line and an email address to allow people to report suspicions of wrongdoing by public officials. A billboard campaign in several communities will publicize the effort.
Similar initiatives are underway in a few other places in the country, but Kentucky “was ripe” for the anti-corruption campaign because of its “fairly sordid history,” said Howard S. Marshall, special agent in charge of the FBI’s Louisville Division.
Between 2003 and 2012, about 300 people were convicted of federal crimes related to public corruption in Kentucky, officials said.
And a 2014 study by Harvard’s Center for Ethics identified Kentucky as one of the country’s most corrupt states, they noted.
“We should expect nothing but integrity from every public-sector employee and every representative,” Marshall said at a news conference at FBI headquarters in Louisville. “To accept less is to accept the public perception our state is no better than its reputation.”
The state’s two U.S. attorneys, Kerry B. Harvey and John E. Kuhn Jr., vowed to pursue any evidence of corruption revealed by the campaign.
“I can promise you this: If public corruption is reported, it will be investigated,” said Kuhn, the U.S. attorney for the western half of Kentucky. “If the investigation reveals evidence of a federal crime, it will be prosecuted.”
The tip line and email address will allow people to “come out of the shadows” to contact law enforcement officials, Marshall said.
“It’s not a problem that’s not unknown here,” he said. “It’s talked about openly. In some parts of the state, it’s talked about even more openly.”
Public corruption takes many forms — embezzlement, bribery, kickbacks, extortion, vote buying and voter intimidation, officials said.
The vast majority of public officials in Kentucky serve “honorably and honestly,” said Harvey, the U.S. attorney for the eastern half of Kentucky.
But those public leaders who become corrupt do more than steal public money, he said.
“They steal the confidence in government’s effectiveness,” he said.
Also on the radar for federal officials will be upcoming audits of hundreds of taxing districts across Kentucky that collect revenue for an array of local government entities. The FBI said it will work with state watchdog officials if the audits reveal any wrongdoing.
The state has been plagued by high-profile public corruption cases through the years.
In the early 1990s, the state General Assembly was rocked by a bribery and influence-peddling scandal known by its FBI code name, Operation Boptrot.
Former state Agriculture Commissioner Richie Farmer was sentenced to prison in 2014 for abusing public office. Farmer, a former University of Kentucky basketball star, admitted to hiring friends and having them do little to no work and using state employees to build a basketball court at his home.
Earlier this year, former Morgan County Judge-Executive Tim Conley was sentenced to prison for raking in more than $100,000 in a kickback scheme that continued even as his eastern Kentucky constituents struggled to rebuild from a deadly 2012 tornado.