Politicians like to talk about their support of transparency. They claim to be steadfast and true for openness in government, and they often accuse opponents of trying to hide what the public has a right to know.
But few politicians could ever match former Assistant Attorney General Amye Bensenhaver’s expertise in the Kentucky Open Meetings and Open Records Laws.
For 25 years, up until her retirement “under duress” this week, Bensenhaver was the expert for the attorney general office’s on Kentucky sunshine laws, and she wrote hundreds of opinions that had the force of law. Her institutional knowledge and her commitment to enforcing the law were crucial protections for Kentuckians who don’t just talk about government transparency but truly value the principles of openness and transparency.
She left her job five years before she intended to retire, mainly because she was reprimanded for speaking to a journalist who wrote a piece about the history of the open meetings and open records laws. Irony has no limits in bureaucracy.
Bensenhaver’s departure is a stain on Attorney General Andy Beshear’s record. We’re waiting to see if he does anything to make amends.
“I came to this decision under considerable duress,” Bensenhaver wrote in a letter to Beshear last month. “It is clear to me I cannot survive, much less thrive, in the current office climate, and I have similar concerns about the open records/meetings law.”
On July 11, La Tasha Buckner, who is Beshear’s executive director for the AG’s Office of Civil and Environmental Law, reprimanded Bensenhaver in a letter.
“You were quoted and cited as a representative of the Office of the Attorney General to the media, activity that falls outside the scope of your job duties, and without permission to do so,” Buckner wrote. “Your actions in regards to Mr. Nelson’s article on the Open Records/Open Meetings Act have severely damaged your credibility and the trust that this office must have in you as an attorney.”
Bensenhaver’s infraction? She had given an interview to John Nelson, the retired editor of the Danville Advocate-Messenger and a highly respected champion for the state’s sunshine laws and government transparency. He is a former Kentucky Press Association president and serves on the advisory committee for the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. Nelson reported a story for the Kentucky Press Association on the 40th anniversary of the passage of the Kentucky Open Meetings and Open Records Laws. It ran in numerous newspapers around the state, including the New Era.
Buckner is wrong. In fact, the actions of Beshear and Buckner have severely damaged their credibility and the trust that Kentuckians must have in the office of the attorney general.
It appears Buckner and Beshear are mostly concerned with controlling information that comes from the AG’s office — and they are comfortable insulting a valuable employee to maintain that control.
“Here she is, someone who devotes herself day in and day out to open government, and she literally gets in trouble for talking to a reporter about open government,” KPA president David Thompson said, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader newspaper. “I hate to see her go.”
Many people across the state agree.
This fiasco isn’t just about Bensenhaver’s career. As she so aptly said in her letter to Beshear, there are also reasons to be concerned about the open records and open meetings laws.
Beshear needs to admit his office made a mistake. He should publicly apologize to Bensenhaver and he ought to explain how he will protect the sunshine laws.
He isn’t likely to do either. Too often, politicians would rather talk about transparency than actually practice it.
Now would be a good time for more Kentuckians to learn about the open records and open meetings laws so they can insist that government agencies follow the laws.
Kentucky New Era