Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear was met with a welcoming crowd Wednesday afternoon on the second floor of The Portal in downtown Harlan.
Hosted by the Harlan Rotary Club and Harlan 20/20, a civic development association, Beshear said he was in town as “the people’s lawyer,” just to “meet his friends,” he said.
As a result, in addition to many local politicians, several professionals who work in Harlan through the various legal and law enforcement agencies were in attendance.
Even Harlan County Judge-Executive Dan Mosley, who introduced Beshear, noted it was uncommon practice for Kentucky’s constitutional officers to visit Harlan County outside of an election season, but Beshear has been an exception.
Mosley cited at least six different occasions since he’s been in office that Beshear has been to Harlan for various reasons.
“I want you to know that Harlan has a friend in the Attorney General’s office,” Beshear said. “When you need something, we answer the call.”
But given the contention in Frankfort between Beshear and Gov. Matt Bevin, some of which is decidedly personal, the wisdom of ongoing community meetings in a rural state is obvious because the next election is never beyond the political horizon.
Beshear spent nearly an hour talking to the roomful of people largely outlining his strategy as attorney general to address what he sees as the Commonwealth’s major law enforcement issues.
He said he relished his job as being work “with true purpose” directed toward making the lives of Kentucky’s citizens “a little better” and “a little safer at the end of every day.”
Thus far, Beshear said, he has focused his office’s attention in four major areas: Protecting children from abuse, protecting seniors from scams, actively pursuing justice for victims of rape and sexual assault and improving the state’s response to the epidemic of drug abuse.
“These are not just issues,” he declared. “I call them causes.”
Beshear spent well over 30 minutes detailing specific actions his office has taken over the past seven months to address each of them.
Millions of dollars in funding for these efforts has come from major settlements from successful prosecutions, including pharmaceutical companies. He also noted a settlement from Volkswagen valued at more than $100 million for Kentucky that resulted from the auto company attempting the evade emission standards and environmental regulations in the operation of a new design for its vehicles.
“None of this is going to cost Kentucky taxpayers one extra dime,” Beshear said.
He also noted changes required to improve foster care and more attention being paid to student debt, especially with regard to for-profit colleges.
Beshear did not shy away from the controversial and overtly political issues he’s been dealing with, going into some detail about his decision to file several lawsuits challenging the governor’s actions, specifically mentioning those regarding the oversight authority for a state retirement program worth $18 billion and the high-profile and wholesale removal of the University of Louisville’s trustees.
To him, these issues are a matter of legal principle, Beshear said.
“This was not something I wanted to do, but when I was sworn in I took an oath on our family Bible and I take it seriously,” Beshear said. “The actions that are at issue in these cases violate our constitution.”
Under the Kentucky Constitution, the legislature sets what money is to be in the state budget and how it is to be spent. When there is a crisis, the legislature has a process for addressing funding problems. These types of actions are not within the authority of the Governor’s Office, he said.
“No matter what you’ve read in the media, this is not personal,” Beshear emphasized. “This is me doing what I believe is right…My job is to make sure that, in the end, the law is followed.”
“I sincerely hope that we don’t have to have a single, additional one of these,” he added.
Beshear was decidedly enthusiastic about a different category of lawsuits his office has filed, specifically those against the federal government’s Environmental Protection Agency that has been seen by the coal industry as abusing their authority and squeezing them out of business by forcing market changes by regulatory manipulation.
Of the six lawsuits he has filed on these issues, Beshear said they were successful in obtaining what he called “a historic stay” in the enforcement of the Clean Power Plan, which the Obama administration has pushed through as the platform for future environmental rules governing electrical generation, which until recently had largely relied on coal.
Within the past five years, environmental regulation and the production of cheaper natural gas supplies have dropped coal’s share as fuel for electric generation from well over half about one-third of that market, with thousands of jobs in communities like Harlan disappearing right along with it.
“I know the importance of these jobs to you and to all the areas of Kentucky that depend on coal jobs,” he said.
His lawsuit challenges the EPA “to follow their own rules,” he said. “They are going to have to do it in a legal way.”
He also pledged to hold federal officials responsible for following through on promises of economic and social relief when their actions create such disruption for working people.
“I’ve heard them make all these promises of federal dollars to help out just like you have. Has anybody seen it?” Beshear asked.
“We will continue to push for what’s right and fair for this region,” he answered.