FRANKFORT, Ky. – Assistant Attorney General Amye Bensenhaver has retired “under considerable duress” after being reprimanded for speaking to a journalist without permission, creating yet another public relations issue for a government agency that has had more than its share in recent months.
For a quarter century, Bensenhaver had been the point person for journalists, private citizens and public agencies at odds over whether government records should be released or whether government meetings should be open to the public.
Widely respected as one of Kentucky’s top authorities on open records and open meetings laws, Bensenhaver’s retirement was effective on Wednesday.
“I came to this decision under considerable duress,” Bensenhaver said in her letter of resignation to Attorney General Andy Beshear. “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 laws.”
Besenhaver’s departure is only the latest in a string of embarrassments for Beshear, who took office in January. Tim Longmeyer, who was Beshear’s deputy attorney general, pleaded guilty to federal bribery charges in April. He resigned in March. And Don Pasley, who headed Beshear’s Office of Initiatives, resigned in May after being charged with driving under the influence.
Beshear communications director Terry Sebastian called Bensenhaver “a valuable member” of the attorney general’s office on Thursday, and he said “the office would have been pleased if she stayed.”
However, the reprimand, written in July by La Tasha Buckner, executive director of the Attorney General’s Office of Civil and Environmental Law, was sharply critical of Bensenhaver, citing “a lack of good conduct and a poor performance of work duties.”
“Granting interviews within the official course of your position falls outside your job duties,” Buckner wrote.
Richard Beliles, chairman of the government watchdog group Common Cause Kentucky, questioned why the attorney general’s office would have a policy barring personnel from talking to journalists with or without permission.
“I think that it is ironic that this woman is being reprimanded for speaking to a journalist when she is so closely associated with the principle of government transparency,” Beliles said.
In the reprimand, Bensenhaver was accused of telling the journalist, John Nelson, the former executive editor of The Advocate-Messenger in Danville, that the attorney general’s website provides less access to open records and open meetings materials than in the past. However, Nelson said Bensenhaver didn’t tell him that.
Nelson said he noticed the changes to the website himself and included the observation in a feature article he wrote for the Kentucky Press Association commemorating the 40th anniversary of Kentucky’s open records law.
“It was pretty ironic that the state office in charge of government transparency was acting that way,” Nelson said. “I was not one bit happy that I was having this back and forth with them just because she talked to me about a very innocent subject. She said nothing wrong. She said nothing that they should be concerned about.”
Sebastian said in an email to Nelson after the article appeared in newspapers across Kentucky that the policy is one he has used for 20 years working in the Legislative Research Commission, the state treasurer’s office, the state auditor’s office and the governor’s office under Paul Patton and Steve Beshear. Sebastian said he had no issues with Nelson’s story, calling it “perfect” in another email.
“I don’t like surprises or being caught off guard, cause if I am, and reporters call me, I cannot be effective,” Sebastian wrote. “I think as a former editor you can understand that.”
Sebastian said Thursday that all employees in the attorney general’s office are under the same rules and supervision, and that the communications policy is the same as was in force under the previous attorney general.
Major disputes over government transparency have ended up on Bensenhaver’s desk over two-and-a-half decades. She has personally written as many 2,000 open records and open meetings opinions, which have the force of law unless overturned by a circuit court.
In the reprimand, Buckner also criticized Bensenhaver for refusing to sign her name to an open records decision with which she disagreed, and, two other instances, for “editing” opinions after they had been approved by her supervisors. Those edits, Bensenhaver pointed out, involved removing a footnote that was factually incorrect and tweaking another footnote that was incorrect.
Buckner also wrote that, by speaking to the journalist and not letting supervisors know about it, Bensenhaver had “severely damaged” her credibility.
“I think this is terrible,” said Sandy Clevenger, a Spencer County school board member who met Bensenhaver nearly a decade ago at a training session on open meetings and open records laws. “It just baffles me that she would be treated in this manner.”
Clevenger gained a degree of fame among advocates for government transparency in 2008 when she challenged a decision by the Spencer County Board of Education to evaluate the superintendent’s job performance in a closed meeting. She received a favorable opinion from Bensenhaver and later from Circuit Judge Charles Hickman when the issue came to him on appeal.
Hickman’s ruling that school boards were not allowed to meet in closed session to evaluate superintendents became moot after the Kentucky General Assembly changed the law so that the evaluations could be done privately.
Clevenger said derogatory statements in reprimand sharply conflict with Bensenhaver’s reputation in the Capitol as a kind, considerate and conscientious government employee.
“She is nothing but polite,” Clevenger said. “She’s intelligent; she’s quick; never overbearing. And she’s a very hard worker. I worry for Amye, but I’m also worried about the rest of us out here who will need to seek help from the attorney general’s office in the future.”