FRANKFORT, Ky. -- A $500,000 contract awarded by Kentucky's Republican governor to investigate his Democratic predecessor survived a challenge in a legislative committee Monday, prolonging a long-running feud that has pitted one of the state's most powerful political families against a Republican outsider intent on upending a power structure in which Democrats have controlled things for decades.
Democrats on the state Government Contract Review Committee failed to muster the five votes required to recommend canceling the contract, awarded to the Indiana-based law firm of Taft, Stettinius & Hollister to investigate the administration of former Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear. The firm's partners include a bevy of attorneys with Republican connections, including Jackie Bennett Jr., one of the lead prosecutors of former President Bill Clinton's impeachment.
"The appearance of what you are doing with this contract is the greatest abuse of public power I have ever witnessed in my 50 years of being in Kentucky state government," said Democratic state Sen. Julian Carroll, who was the state's governor from 1976 to 1980.
Republicans pushed back, pointing out that Beshear's administration approved contracts with the Lexington law firm Stites and Harbison, which employed Beshear both before and after his term as governor. And they noted that one of Beshear's top officials, former Personnel Cabinet Secretary Tim Longmeyer, has pleaded guilty to federal bribery charges.
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"I'm not sure here what my colleagues on the other side of the aisle are afraid of. All we want to do is get to the truth," said Republican state Rep. Brad Montell. "Five hundred thousand dollars is a lot of money. But I would say it's a drop in the bucket compared to the millions of dollars that may have been tainted."
Gov. Matt Bevin took office in December, replacing Beshear, who could not seek re-election because of term limits. Bevin rescinded several of Beshear's executive orders, removed his wife from the Kentucky Horse Park Commission, and announced he would dismantle kynect, the health insurance exchange Beshear started under the federal Affordable Care Act.
Beshear responded by starting a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising money to oppose Bevin and his policies, an unprecedented act of a former governor openly criticizing his successor. And Attorney General Andy Beshear, Steve Beshear's son, has sued Bevin at least three times over his decisions.
In April, Bevin announced his staff had uncovered examples of corruption in Beshear's administration, including awarding lucrative state contracts to friends and allies and forcing state workers to donate money to Democratic candidates and causes.
Bevin launched an investigation, using a state law that gives Finance Cabinet Secretary William Landrum the power to subpoena witnesses. Landrum also hired former U.S. Marshal Kenneth F. Bohac as his inspector general to lead the investigation.
Steve Beshear has fiercely denied the allegations, saying Bevin has declared war on him and his family.
Monday, Democrats questioned Bevin's ethics for awarding the contract. Another firm, Louisville-based MMN Consulting, offered a rate of $123 per hour. But Bevin chose the Taft law firm, which will charge $250 an hour. Democratic state Rep. Brent Yonts noted the contract includes attorney Jay Dickerson, who has donated money to Republican candidates, and attorney John Nalbandian, the general counsel for the Kentucky Republican Party Central Committee.
"Is this 'pay to play'? That's what it smells and looks like," Yonts said.
Landrum said the contract went to the Taft law firm because it is larger and has more resources to devote to the investigation. He pledged the investigation would be conducted fairly.
"I will be judged by these results. I understand that. This government, this state and administration will be judged by these results," he said. "This is what I'm after, honesty and integrity."