FRANKFORT, KY – Outrage over a spree of pardons by former Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin spread to the state capitol Friday as lawmakers called on federal and state prosecutors to investigate the orders, including one for a convicted killer whose family raised campaign money for the governor.
Bevin, who lost to Democrat Andy Beshear last month in a close race, has issued more than 400 pardons since the Nov. 5 election, according to the Kentucky Secretary of State's office.
The fallout from Bevin's pardon-granting binge widened as the Republican Senate President called for a federal investigation and Democratic lawmakers called on Attorney General-elect Daniel Cameron to appoint a special prosecutor or a bipartisan team to investigate some of the ex-governor's pardons. Cameron takes office next week.
Senate President Robert Stivers condemned Bevin's actions as “a travesty and perversion of justice” and called on the U.S. attorney in Kentucky to investigate.
“Gov. Bevin's pardons show what is a shocking lack of judgment and potentially an abuse of our system of justice," Senate Minority Floor Leader Morgan McGarvey told reporters.
Bevin’s pardons also drew a rebuke Friday from the state’s most powerful Republican, U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
“Honestly, I don’t approve,” McConnell told reporters Friday at the Kentucky Capitol. “It seems to me it was completely inappropriate.”
Bevin responded to the uproar in a series of tweets Friday evening, saying he reviewed hundreds of pages of court transcripts and thousands of letters.
“The myriad statements and suggestions that financial or political considerations played a part in the decision making process are both highly offensive and entirely false,” he wrote on Twitter. He said “armchair critics” are not aware of "facts, evidence, lack of evidence, supporting documents, reasons and unique details" of the cases.
Cameron, the incoming Republican state attorney general, did not address the pardons or a potential investigation in a written statement Friday but said he believes “the pardon power should be used sparingly and only after great deliberation with due regard to public safety.”
McGarvey said special attention should be given to the pardon issued to Patrick Brian Baker, who was sentenced to 19 years on convictions of reckless homicide and other crimes in a fatal 2014 home break-in in Knox County. Prosecutors say Baker and another man posed as police to gain entry to Donald Mills' home and Mills was shot in front of his wife. She tried to drive him to the hospital but he died on arrival.
Mills' sister, Melinda Mills, said in an interview Friday that she was “highly pissed off” when she learned of Baker's pardon.
“We all highly suspect that there was money involvement to get his pardon,” she said. "He (Bevin) got campaign money. He didn’t come for free of charge.”
Baker's family raised $21,500 at a political fundraiser last year for Bevin and Baker's brother and sister-in-law also gave $4,000 to Bevin’s campaign on the day of the fundraiser, the Courier Journal reported. Bevin wrote in the pardoning document that Baker's “drug addictions” led him to fall in with the wrong people and the evidence against Baker was “sketchy at best.”
But the Kentucky Court of Appeals upheld Baker's conviction a year ago, writing in a unanimous ruling that "there can be no doubt, on review of the proof as a whole, evidence of Baker’s guilt was overwhelming.”
Baker's two accomplices remain in prison.
“I don't see how, based on what we have in front of us, there is any other assumption to draw than two people are sitting in jail because they didn't have personal favors with the governor," McGarvey said. “There is one person who is out who did."
At Baker's trial in 2017, the judge declared a mistrial on four counts of wanton endangerment, meaning Baker could potentially be retried on those charges, which are felonies that range from one to five years in prison.
“I will say that we are very aware of that right now,” Melinda Mills said. The original prosecutor in the case, Commonwealth's Attorney Jackie Steele, could not be reached for comment Friday.
Several of Bevin's pardons were granted to people from wealthy families, State Rep. Chris Harris said.
“That's something that specifically needs to be looked into," he said. “We want to make sure that there's not this pay-for-play going on with governor pardons."
Another lawmaker, Republican state Sen. Chris McDaniel, said he will introduce a measure next year that seeks to amend the state's Constitution to strip a governor of pardon powers for the month leading up to an election and for the time between an election and the swearing in of a new governor. The proposal would have to be ratified by the state's voters.
“If a governor wants to use the power to commute and pardon, he should be willing to stand in front of the voters and be held accountable for those actions," McDaniel said in a statement.