Are Kentucky judges disclosing everything they should? Thursday, Nov 3 2022 

Judicial campaign signs in Louisville.

Jared Bennett

Judicial campaign signs in Louisville.

Kentucky voters will decide the outcome of dozens of judicial races when they head to the polls this upcoming Election Day. To learn more about who is on the ballot, the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting requested financial disclosure forms from 93 sitting judges and challengers running for the bench in Jefferson County, nearby counties in north central Kentucky and the state Supreme Court.

What we learned: The disclosures don’t reveal much about the candidates’ financial holdings, while gaps in oversight and lax enforcement make it difficult to hold judges accountable for potential conflicts of interest that might come up in court.

State law requires judges and judicial candidates to file financial disclosures listing sources of income in the prior year as well as stocks, bonds and real estate valued at more than $1,000 owned by themselves, their spouse or any of their dependents. However, the forms don’t require candidates to get very specific about these things, and the information they put down tends to be sparse.

Of the 30 candidates who noted stock ownership in disclosures reviewed by KyCIR, only six named the specific companies they held stock in and none listed the stocks’ value. Kentucky’s disclosure policies have been found deficient before. In 2012, the journalism organization the Center for Public Integrity gave Kentucky’s disclosure laws a failing grade, citing the lack of specificity required in the disclosure forms.

The Kentucky Registry of Election Finance receives the financial disclosures. Still, the office is only required to review the forms for completion and make them available to the public upon request.

The registry’s primary job is to police political donations and investigate election finance law violations. KREF Executive Director John Steffen said reviewing the disclosures for impropriety is outside his agency’s scope and practical ability.

Steffen suggested that it would make more sense for candidates to file the disclosures with Kentucky’s Judicial Conduct Commission, which investigates complaints and can discipline judges for misconduct.

“I don’t understand why this falls under the registry,” Steffen said. “It’s totally separate from anything else we do.”

Shameka Parrish-Wright, state director of VOCAL Kentucky, a community organizing group working towards ending mass incarceration and the war on drugs, said the public needs to learn more about judicial candidates – including their financial ties.

“I think the public needs full knowledge for someone that is in a powerful seat,” Parrish-Wright said. “Judicial races are so important.”

Gaps in accountability and lax enforcement

With access to detailed federal judge disclosures, Wall Street Journal reporters last year identified 131 federal judges who, between 2010 and 2018, violated federal law by presiding over cases involving companies they held shares in and trading stock during the proceedings.

It would be difficult to complete a similar review here in Kentucky. Kentucky judges are required to disclose fewer details than federal judges, according to Leslie Abramson, a professor at the University of Louisville Brandeis School of Law who has explored questions around judicial ethics and disclosure for over 30 years.

For example, Kentucky’s disclosure form does not require the names of specific companies, only broad descriptions of the business.

Elected officials and candidates for positions in the legislative and executive branches of state government are also required to file financial disclosures. Unlike the forms filled out by the judiciary, the disclosures required for legislative and executive branch members expect more detail, such as the names of creditors and businesses in which the filer has significant investments.

Abramson said that judges are expected to regulate themselves for conflicts of interest. Some judges provide a list of financial ties to their clerk to flag assignments with conflicting interest, Abramson said, and the judge may recuse themselves from a case if they notice conflict or ask those involved if they would allow the judge to continue.

If a judge fails to recuse themselves, an attorney could use financial disclosures to point out competing interests. But Abramson said the disclosure’s vagueness “makes it very difficult for the attorney to act on [their] suspicions that the judge has a conflict of interest.”

If someone were to have a problem with a judge, judicial candidate, or something in their disclosure, they could file a complaint with the Judicial Conduct Commission, the agency Steffen of Kentucky’s election finance department thought better suited to handle judicial financial disclosures.

The commission, established by the Kentucky Supreme Court, can investigate a judge and levy sanctions, reprimands or suspensions for violations of the state’s judicial conduct code. The code expects a judge to disqualify themselves from presiding over cases when they or a family member have an economic interest in the case. Three judges, one member of the Kentucky Bar Association, and two citizens appointed by the governor sit on the commission, which doesn’t proactively look for conflicts of interest.

A spokesperson for the commission declined to make any of its members available for an interview or to answer questions about financial disclosures and judicial oversight raised in this article. The commission files annual reports summarizing the number of judicial complaints filed and actions taken. Very few complaints result in sanctions, according to the reports reviewed by KyCIR. The most recent report covers the 2019-2020 fiscal year and shows the commission considered 248 complaints against sitting judges and concluded inquiries in 227 complaints, resulting in six imposed sanctions.

The report describes the general nature of complaints, but does not explicitly mention conflicts of interests stemming from judges' financial holdings. The commission issued public reprimands for two judges accused of intervening in legal proceedings to help people they knew and one order for permanent retirement for a judge found unable to perform his duties. The other three disciplinary actions were private.

Judges and judicial candidates can turn to the Judicial Ethic Committee, composed of three judges and two Kentucky Bar Association members, for guidance about ethical issues they encounter. But a spokesperson for the committee declined an interview on the record, saying the committee does not answer questions from the general public.

What the disclosures say 

Some judges provide more detail about their finances, according to a KyCIR analysis of their disclosures.

Hardin County Circuit Court Judge Kelly Mark Easton, who is running unopposed for an appellate court seat, did state specific companies he owns stock in, including Xenia Hotels & Resorts, a real estate investment trust. Though he wasn’t required to, Easton also noted that he sold his Xenia shares in 2021.

Easton told KyCIR that the value of stocks he sold in 2021 amounted to less than $20,000.

Most judges in our review of financial disclosures were not as open as he was.

Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Audra Eckerle, campaigning against Tricia Lister for an appellate seat, disclosed having stocks in finance, electronics, defense and home improvement among other industries on her disclosure. But that’s as detailed as she got.

In an interview with KyCIR, she described herself as “not a very active investor” and said she relies heavily on her stockbroker. Eckerle couldn’t recall if any of her investments had direct ties to Louisville or Kentucky.

She said the lack of detail required helps protect judges' privacy.

However, Eckerle acknowledged that the current disclosure requirements don’t get the public very much information and suggested that the form should ask for more specifics.

Eckerle’s opponent, Lister, disclosed owning diverse mutual funds and technology and airline stocks. But like Eckerle, she only listed the type of investment she holds, not the companies or stock values.

Lister, a criminal defense and appeals attorney, said she barely remembered filling out the form and was surprised by the simplicity. Lister told KyCIR she knew her husband had an individual retirement account in the form of stocks and that she owns some Amazon stock, which she didn’t specify on the form. Like Eckerle, Lister said she was not an active investor but said the public should know more about judges' interests.

“People have a right to know about what sort of obligations the judges might have,” Lister said.

Views from Kentucky's highest court

Several Kentucky Supreme Court candidates report owning stocks but don’t list the names of those companies.

For example, Justice Lisabeth Hughes lists stock in a real estate leasing company, a restaurant company and “consumer personal care products” but provides no further details. Hughes did not respond to KyCIR’s requests for comment in time for publication.

Justice Laurence VanMeter discloses stocks that include an aluminum producer, five oil and gas producers and one oil and gas supplier but doesn’t share the names of those companies or what value he holds.

VanMeter told KyCIR he notifies parties in any case he oversees of potential conflicts of interest in addition to what his disclosure form reads.

“What's on the form reflects the ownership, but I recognize it doesn't provide that much information,” VanMeter said.

VanMeter declined to disclose to KyCIR the names of companies he held stock in and their value.

“I will comply with the statutes and rules such as they are,” he said.

The Kentucky General Assembly has the power to change those rules. But state lawmakers have taken a hands-off approach.

State Rep. C. Ed Massey, a Republican from northern Kentucky, is the chair of the House Standing Committee on the Judiciary. He said judicial financial disclosures have not come up since he was the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, but the topic does fall under the committee’s jurisdiction.

“Realistically, the House Judiciary Committee can investigate or look into or converse in any aspect involving the law,” Massey said.

State Sen. Whitney Westerfield, a Republican from Crofton, chairs the Senate Standing Committee on the Judiciary.

Westerfield said he communicates with judges regularly, but he has never considered the issue of judicial financial disclosures before.

“In my nine years, I don't recall ever having been asked to revisit any policy about that, and I don't remember a bill related to that,” Westerfield said.

Alex Harrison contributed to this report.

Contact Lily Buriss at lburiss@louisvillepublicmedia.org.

The post Are Kentucky judges disclosing everything they should? appeared first on Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

Federal funding for natural disasters fails Ky. counties that need it most Thursday, Oct 27 2022 

David Watson and Joyce Johnson stand in front of the trailer where Johnson's niece lived. In July, flood waters picked up the trailer and slammed it against a utility pole.

Jared Bennett

Clay County Emergency Management Director David Watson stands with Joyce Johnson in front of a trailer on Johnson’s property that was damaged by the July floods. Watson said he has gotten to know most of the people in the community of Oneida, Kentucky through his work in disaster recovery.

This story was produced as part of a collaboration with the Center for Public Integrity, Columbia Journalism Investigations and Type Investigations.

Clay County Emergency Management Director David Watson sees signs of recovery all over Oneida, Kentucky, where flood waters tumbled down the mountains and ripped through town in late July.

By mid-September, when a reporter joined Watson for a ride-along, debris had been cleared from driveways, new mailboxes stood in front yards and construction crews were fixing crucial roads that the floods previously made impassable.

Watson’s job is to coordinate rebuilding efforts for the eastern Kentucky county. But he said floods are becoming more common and more dangerous here, and Watson worries recovery won’t be enough.

“Every time we have these flash flood warnings, we’re sitting and holding our breath, just praying that it dissipates before it hits little Oneida,” he said.

Watson isn’t just responsible for recovery alone. He’s also the person tasked with making Clay County safer and more resilient in the face of future floods through a process known as hazard mitigation planning.

Watson knows this preparation is important. But repairing what’s been damaged, helping people who lost everything get back on their feet and getting Clay County back to something resembling normal is demanding in itself.

Watson said the job has been like drinking through a firehose. 

“At the end of the day, counties focus on getting their roads and bridges built back to pre-disaster conditions,” Watson said. “Then when you look at hazard mitigation, sometimes you think that’s the least thing from my mind right now. As a county, it probably should be one of our top five priorities.” 

The idea is to reduce the harm that future extreme weather events cause people and property with long-term solutions like fortifying bridges to withstand repeated flooding, building storm life-saving shelters and helping people relocate from flood-prone properties stuck in a cycle of disasters. 

But preparing for the next calamity while still recovering from historically devastating weather is a daunting task for county emergency planners across Kentucky. Especially planners like Watson who could use a lot more support coordinating complicated projects and securing federal funding to pay for mitigation

Few counties can afford to implement robust mitigation plans without federal support, and they face barriers that make it hard for some of the state’s most disaster-prone communities to get the help they need. 

Most of the hazard mitigation money set aside by the Federal Emergency Management Association doesn’t reach counties until well after a disaster. Some counties can’t afford to put up their portion of the funds (FEMA grants will cover as much as 90% of the costs, states and local governments provide the rest). 

Any county in the state can apply for hazard mitigation funds that become available after a disaster, even if they weren’t directly impacted. As a result, some communities already reeling from recent disasters struggle to complete a complicated and time-consuming application process that can pit them against wealthier communities also vying for the grants. 

A Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting analysis of federal hazard mitigation spending shows just how unevenly the money has been distributed as a result, reflecting a process based more on competition than on need.  Communities directly impacted by Kentucky’s recent disasters received comparatively fewer federal hazard mitigation dollars – averaging $24 per capita in hazard mitigation assistance funding since 1988 compared to an average of $36 per capita for Kentucky counties spared from the storms. 

KyCIR conducted the analysis using data from a recent project from Columbia Journalism Investigations, Type Investigations and the Center for Public Integrity that examined the complicated bureaucracies preventing many communities directly impacted by climate change from winning federal mitigation grants. The project also highlighted how the system is struggling to keep up with climate change’s rising stakes. 

Kentucky – which saw more flood related disaster declarations than any state from 2000 to 2022 –  is a prime example of this disconnect.

Of the 29 counties eligible for FEMA aid after the tornadoes and floods, four counties have never received any hazard mitigation funds. Of those four counties, which have some of the highest poverty rates in the state, only Clay County employs a full time planner working on emergency management.

University of Iowa professor Eric Tate studies the connection between poverty and weather disasters. He said the competitive grant process FEMA uses to distribute hazard mitigation funds exacerbates the nation’s already unequal response to climate change.

Wealthier, whiter and less rural communities are often better equipped to handle the administrative burden it takes to secure FEMA hazard mitigation grants, Tate said. At the same time, officials in communities with predominantly rural or minority populations whose constituents are more likely to live in disaster-prone areas often fail to even apply.

In that way, few disasters can truly be called “natural,” Tate said. “They are disasters, but because of the way we organize society, the fact that we have such inequality and discrimination… that is what’s leading to all of these problems.”

Oneida

Joyce Johnson said she has lived in a small valley near Oneida since she was seven.

Seven weeks after the July 28 flood, the only items inside Johnson’s home were a few broken appliances and a muddy Bible resting on a dented clothes dryer. The walls had been stripped down to the studs, leaving a four-foot gap to the floor.

A muddy bible on a dented clothes dryer.

Jared Bennett

A muddy bible on a dented clothes dryer.

Johnson pointed to a hole in her bedroom where the flood slammed debris through the side of the house. She said she was thinking about leaving.

“We've worked our hearts out,” Johnson said. “But if it happens again, I’m leaving. I can’t handle this. This is awful to see your home destroyed and no way to put it back.”

Johnson said she was raised in a house higher up the valley, where her parents still live. In her 50 years living in the area, she remembers the creek rising plenty of times, but said flooding has become a more serious problem in recent years.

In March 2021, a flood damaged the floors and insulation in the mobile home down by the creek where Johnson’s niece lived. Her niece had only recently moved back into the trailer when the creek flooded again this July. That flood carried the trailer about 30 feet and slammed it against a utility pole as the family watched from a porch nearby.

Johnson’s niece is now renting a home in town while Watson, the county emergency director, raises the money to repair the mobile home and move it up the valley and out of the flood zone.

Counties can use hazard mitigation funds to relocate people out of flood paths, but the process is often too slow and cumbersome to be an effective option. Instead, Watson plans to use donations from community groups to move the trailer before winter arrives. He visited Johnson in September to scout the new site.

“Hazard mitigation money could fund this,” Watson said. “But she's got to get her family back in the house. She can't wait a year and a half ‘til hazard mitigation finally kicks in, and they say, ‘Hey, here's some money for you guys.’”

Joyce Johnson stands in front of her home seven weeks after floods hit the valley in Clay County, Kentucky.

Jared Bennett

Joyce Johnson stands in front of her home seven weeks after floods hit the valley in Clay County, Kentucky.

Watson said he’s been learning more about the hazard mitigation process since the July floods.

Federal and state emergency management officials announced a new round of hazard mitigation funding tied to the disaster on Sept. 7. Watson said four families in Clay County have expressed interest in using hazard mitigation funds to purchase properties in flood zones so they can relocate, and Watson is gathering the materials needed to package their application.

Watson works for Clay County, which has one of the highest poverty rates in the state, in addition to a full time job as the engineering director at the local hospital. He’s been in the position for 13 years but said he hadn’t applied for a hazard mitigation grant before because the county had other priorities for their limited resources, and he doesn’t have the staff.

“It really would take one staff member to do nothing but hazard mitigation planning, applications, follow through, and the whole nine yards,” said Watson.

Kentucky Emergency Management spokesperson Angie Van Berkel said in an email that the agency works with Kentucky Area Development Districts, regional focused planning and development agencies, to provide technical resources for communities that want to apply for grants. A representative from the Cumberland Area Development District, which represents Clay County, did not respond to requests for comment.

‘A bit of a mystery’

FEMA gained the authority to provide funding for disaster preparation in 1988. Kentucky is one of 15 states with an enhanced hazard mitigation program, allowing for more federal money for hazard mitigation after every disaster.

Counties that want funding must submit grant applications to the Kentucky Mitigation Council, which is part of the state’s emergency management division. The council is composed of representatives from local government and state officials including Kentucky Hazard Mitigation Officer Geni Jo Brawner, floodplain coordinator Alex VanPelt and Division of Water Director Carey Johnson, with support from the University of Kentucky’s Hazard Mitigation Grants Program Office. Counties submit their proposals, and the council decides what to pass along to FEMA for approval.

Drew Chandler, emergency management director for Woodford County, said most local emergency management officials aren’t totally aware of the criteria the council uses to review requests.

“It’s a bit of a mystery,” said Chandler, also the outgoing president of the Kentucky Emergency Management Association, a nonprofit organization for emergency management professionals in the state. His county has received $2.3 million in hazard mitigation funds since 1988 to take on projects such as distributing emergency radios to people living in the floodplain and elevating a historic log cabin near Woodford Reserve distillery.

“I would like to think that the priority does, in fact, go to the counties that were impacted by the disaster,” Chandler said. “But I wouldn’t want to do that job because of the complexities and having to make decisions about which project is more worthy than another.”

Jessica Elbouab, a spokesperson for Kentucky Emergency Management, the state agency in charge of coordinating disaster response, said in an email that the council prioritizes communities that were directly impacted by the floods.

The agency provided KyCIR a list of projects approved by the council after the December tornadoes. The list showed 78% of the $134 million in federal hazard mitigation funding went towards projects in counties eligible for individual or public assistance relief. Another 21% went towards counties that were not directly impacted by the storm, with the rest going towards statewide projects. Kentucky received another $3.5 in federal funds to support regional or statewide planning projects.

The counties that suffer the most disasters aren’t necessarily the ones that get the most FEMA funding for disaster preparation.

In eastern Kentucky, Letcher and Owsley Counties saw five and seven natural disaster declarations, respectively, between 1988 and 2020. FEMA data shows neither received hazard mitigation money during that period. Fayette County, the state’s second most populous county, was named in one declaration but got $16 million over that same span.

Kentucky Emergency Management spokesperson Van Berkel said in an email that Letcher and Owsley County have never applied for hazard mitigation funding and that Fayette County was the site of a $12 hazard mitigation project awarded after flash floods killed two people in 2006. Van Berkel also said that the threshold for a disaster declaration is higher in more densely populated counties.

“This doesn’t negate the need for mitigation,” Van Berkel said. “If impacted counties are not applying, rather than forgoing the FEMA funding, it is important to submit as many project proposals as possible to ensure all floods are utilized.”

Elbouab said the council typically looks for projects that will prevent future disaster damage, have passed a cost-benefit analysis and avoid harming the environment.

The council also makes funding decisions based on the state's hazard mitigation plan, which explains the disasters that threaten Kentucky. The 2018 document established broad goals, such as educating people about mitigation strategies and doing a better job coordinating and prioritizing mitigation.

These plans will become more important as climate change brings stronger storms and heavier rainfall to Kentucky and other parts of the U.S. 

FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell called climate change the country’s biggest crisis in an August 2021 press release announcing a $3.5 billion commitment to hazard mitigation efforts across the country. FEMA allocated Kentucky nearly $22.8 million of the money to fund projects that lessen risks posed by natural disasters. But state and federal officials have not yet answered questions about how the money will be spent.

Emergency planners make a big difference

There are 45 counties in Kentucky with part-time emergency management directors, according to a list provided by Kentucky Emergency Management. Counties with full-time emergency planners tend to have more success securing federal hazard mitigation dollars.

The five counties that have received the most grant assistance all have someone working full-time in that role.

For the last 26 years, Ronnie Pearson has served as the full-time emergency management coordinator in Warren County, which has received $2.8 million in hazard mitigation grants since 1988. Pearson has used mitigation grants to build six storm shelters around the county, among other projects, with help from a deputy director and a full-time grant writer he shares with the rest of the county government.

Pearson said the structures provided shelter for 200 to 300 people when tornadoes hit the county last December. Eighty people died in that outbreak, 17 of them in Warren County.

Emergency planners in at least 12 counties have used hazard mitigation funds to build at least 67 storm shelters in Kentucky, most of them near the state’s largest cities and in counties with full-time emergency management directors.

Graves County has received $187,000 in hazard mitigation funds since 1988. But there were no storm shelters in Graves County last December when the tornadoes killed 24 people there. Emergency Management Director Tracey Warner has since secured hazard mitigation money from FEMA to build six shelters.

Warner has served as Graves County’s first full-time director for the past three years. The Kentucky Emergency Management Association named Warner their “manager of the year” for her service to the county in the aftermath of the tornadoes.

She is now preparing applications for funding tied to the flooding in eastern Kentucky to take on other necessary improvements, such as building a more resilient emergency operations center.

“Whether I get it or not, it's fine,” she said. “You just keep asking.”

Not every county has a full-time emergency manager like Warner or Pearson.

Nine of the 29 counties most impacted by recent disasters had part-time emergency management directors, according to data from the state, according to data from the state and KyCIR’s reporting. At least four of the counties whose emergency management directors are listed as full-time share other responsibilities such as coordinated 911 services or acting as the counties floodplain coordinator.

Letcher County emergency management director Paul Miles works part-time. He retired in 2017 after a 30-year career in law enforcement and accepted the part-time emergency management role less than a year later.

When the flood hit in late July, Miles remembers coordinating first responders helping the rescue effort in his county using an emergency radio as he fled the flood waters in his truck. His office and two backup emergency operation centers had flooded. All the county’s emergency response vehicles were swept into the North Fork Kentucky River.

Letcher County Emergency Management Director Paul Miles stands in front of first responder vehicles that were damaged in the July floods.

Letcher County Emergency Management Director Paul Miles stands in front of first responder vehicles that were damaged in the July floods. Miles' office and two backup emergency operations centers were flooded during the storm.

For Miles, figuring out long-term solutions will have to wait.

In mid-September, the county’s search and rescue truck was still tangled in a sycamore tree.

“We still have roads that aren’t open. We have people that have their driveways washed out that are impassable,” Miles said. “We have not cleared this hurdle yet.”

Letcher County has never received any hazard mitigation money, and Miles has never applied for a grant. Miles said the county had had problems with flooding before, but not to this extreme. So, leaders focused on other priorities, like coordinating a volunteer search and rescue team.

FEMA will reimburse the county for flood repairs after a separate complicated approval process, and any hazard mitigation projects will require the county to pay for a portion of the costs. Many counties in Kentucky struggle to keep up with their mitigation plans already. Miles said that even with COVID-19 relief funds, Letcher County’s limited resources are tied up with simple repair and maintenance.

“With our roads right now, there’s so much damage I don’t know where the money is going to come from,” Miles said.

‘FEMA should simplify as much as possible’

FEMA knows accessing hazard mitigation funds is a challenge for many communities.

The agency agreed to find ways to simplify the application process after a 2021 Government Accountability Office report found many local governments struggled with the complexity of the grant application process. Others had access to technical expertise or could hire expensive consultants to navigate the paperwork.

FEMA recently solicited public comments to inform potential changes to the agency’s hazard mitigation Program and Policy Guide, which was last updated in 2015.

In one public comment, the Association of State Floodplain Coordinators, a nonprofit organization for people working to reduce flood loss, said FEMA’s hazard mitigation program keeps getting more complex. “More complex programs are almost impossible for low-capacity jurisdictions to administer, FEMA should simplify as much as possible,” the association wrote.

The association said FEMA should let states run their own hazard mitigation grant programs so they can respond to disasters without seeking federal approval for projects.

Tate, of the University of Iowa, said FEMA should invest more in so-called technical assistance grants that help under-resourced communities manage the complicated grant process.

“Larger and wealthier communities are the ones that have those capabilities already,” Tate said. “So, it's easier for them to compete for these projects than the smaller, rural, poor communities.”

FEMA provides some money to help under-resourced communities with the process. but Tate said that investment has so far been too small to close the gap. Kentucky has received $191,000 in technical assistance since 1988. Emergency management officials have used that money to support salaries and training, according to FEMA data.

Stephen Eisenman, founder and strategy director at the Anthropocene Alliance, a nonprofit that helps communities across the country prepare for climate change, said that Congress could rewrite the grant program and distribute the funding more equitably — especially if voters support candidates who acknowledge the threats posed by climate change and want to invest in mitigation.

“Kentucky's being screwed over by the storms, and so has almost every other state and city in the South, and yet, that's where the least political support for action on climate change is,” Eisenman said.

KyCIR reached out to the office of U.S. Congressman Hal Rogers, a Republican representing most of eastern Kentucky who has helped secure more than $800 million in flood control studies and projects in his district, to ask about FEMA’s hazard mitigation program. His spokesperson didn't follow up with KyCIR's interview requests by publication time.

KyCIR also sent interview requests to the chairs and vice chairs of both the Kentucky Senate and House energy and environment committees to discuss the state’s disaster mitigation programs. They did not respond to inquiries.

When recovery isn’t enough

FEMA pays for some smaller-scale mitigation projects, such as reinforcing damaged roads, as part of its Public Assistance program for reimbursing counties' cleanup and recovery costs. Unlike hazard mitigation grants, that money is designated for counties hit by a disaster.

Watson said most of that spending in Clay County will go toward getting things back to the way they were before the flood, to what FEMA calls “pre-disaster conditions.”

The problem, Watson said, is that repairing the damage doesn’t solve the problems like unstable infrastructure that made the last flood so destructive.

As he drove through Oneida one day in September, Watson pointed out a large pipe that became clogged with debris, causing the water to spill over the road and flood nearby homes. Watson said FEMA might reimburse the county’s spending on repairing the pipe, but it will still probably overflow again during a heavy rain.

“Here's the reality: you can spend a half a million dollars going up the holler, repairing roads and bridges, doing bank stabilization, ditching, asphalt repair, all the above,” Watson said, but if the county doesn’t find long-term solutions to infrastructure problems, “it's all gonna be wiped out again.”

Many policies the county is navigating were written by Congress decades ago. Watson worries what’s on the books now can’t keep up with the disasters Clay County is facing. He said he hopes federal officials learn from what’s happened here and consider updating disaster policies to make it easier for people to access much-needed aid as disasters become more frequent.

If officials really want to improve the hazard mitigation assistance process, Watson said they should do a better job spreading the word about how it works so that more counties like his can take advantage of federal grants.

“I think the biggest part of the improvement is education right now,” Watson said.

Contact reporter Jared Bennett at jbennett@kycir.org

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Toxic ‘forever chemicals’ poisoned water in this small Ky. town. The mayor didn’t warn residents. Thursday, Sep 22 2022 

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More Ky. youth are struggling with mental health. Are state lawmakers doing enough? Monday, Sep 19 2022 

Photo courtesy of the Kentucky Student Voice Team.

The Kentucky Student Voice Team was founded in 2012 and works to include young people in the creation of policies and legislation.

Esha Bajwa was just a middle schooler when she started struggling with depression. She likens the condition to a bad knee ache that comes and goes. She doesn’t always know what triggers the pain or how bad it will get.                

“There’s some moments where I walk on it, and I feel like I’m surviving. I’m doing great,” she said. “And then other times, it just hurts so bad that it consumes me.”

Bajwa remembers feeling guilty about her depression because she thought her parents faced worse challenges immigrating to America from Pakistan. So, she downplayed her struggles making friends at school and the stress she felt when her parents argued at home.

Her mental health hit a low in 2021, during her senior year at Fern Creek High School in Louisville. The pandemic had disrupted the last two years of her education and threatened her family’s stability. Her dad’s job laid him off, and his diabetes worsened. He spent several months in and out of hospitals. 

Bajwa took on more household responsibilities like cooking and cleaning — all the while feeling more and more isolated from her classmates and weathering the challenges of remote learning.

“I was really trying to keep the household afloat,” she said. “I put so much pressure on myself to help my family out that I did not take care of myself.”

Bajwa, now 18, is one of more than 130,000 young Kentuckians who report wrestling with anxiety and depression, a likely underreported rate, according to the 2022 KIDS COUNT Data Book released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation last month. The data comes from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ National Survey of Children’s Health.

Photo courtesy of Esha Bajwa.

Esha Bajwa, 18, recently graduated from Fern Creek High School and is now attending the University of Louisville.

At least 16% of Kentucky children ages 3 to 17 have depression or anxiety, the sixth highest rate in the nation, according to the foundation report. The rate has increased by nearly one-third since 2016.

Youth of color and young people who identify as LGBTQ experience disproportionately high rates of anxiety and depression.

Most public health officials agree that the country is amidst a youth mental health crisis. Many young people suffered trauma and loss due to the pandemic. They also have to contend with poverty, hunger, violence and other risk factors that affect mental health. 

“There are predicate factors,” said Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, a children’s advocacy organization. “I think sometimes we, as a Commonwealth, don’t want to draw the dots between poverty and mental health or between violence and mental health. But it’s all connected.”

The U.S. Surgeon General published an advisory in 2021 urging government officials to address the social and economic barriers that contribute to poor mental health for young people. 

Kentucky has made some progress. The Kentucky General Assembly passed several bills related to youth mental health this year. One of the laws allows students to take mental health days off from school. Another emphasizes the need for more mental health professionals in schools

Youth advocates still say state lawmakers could be doing more to help young people – and that they’ve made matters worse in some cases by passing several laws that could harm young people’s mental health, especially youth from marginalized backgrounds. 

“We have regressive legislative measures that gathered steam last session — some took hold, and some didn’t,” Brooks said. “The results of those measures are only going to increase mental and behavioral health issues for kids.”

The intersection of policy and youth mental health

Having a safe and stable place to call home and consistent access to food and income is crucial for creating the conditions that support good mental health, according to the National Alliance on Mental Health. The organization says this means creating equitable government policies and eliminating discrimination.

House Bill 7, passed into Kentucky law earlier this year, added more requirements for people trying to access public benefits like unemployment and food assistance. Critics said the measure revealed “a bias against the poor,” claiming it created more barriers to support for the state’s most vulnerable residents. Supporters of the bill said the restrictions were necessary to prevent fraud and reduce dependency on public assistance. In May, KyCIR reported that the bill was heavily influenced by model legislation from the Foundation of Government Accountability, a conservative think tank based in Florida. The foundation has pushed for welfare restrictions in Kentucky for years. They did not respond to requests for comment. 

House Bill 63 mandated that every K-12 school in Kentucky have a school resource officer (SRO) or develop a plan to hire one in an effort to prevent school shootings. But some argue that the presence of police in schools could cause harm, especially for students of color and those with disabilities, who are disciplined at disproportionately higher rates.

“It just goes to show how little they consider the intersectionality of mental health,” said Bajwa, who now serves on the Kentucky Student Voice Team, a group that aims to include youth voices in state policy and research. “You can’t say that you care about mental health if you’re also going to implement resource officers that are going to make students feel uncomfortable and punish them more severely.”

Some legislators disagree. 

Republican State Rep. Kevin Bratcher, who is running for re-election in 2023, sponsored HB 63. He said he didn’t see why the presence of student resource officers would impact mental health.

“Having proper and ready security inside a school building should not be a burden to any child’s mental health,” he wrote in an email to KyCIR. “If it is, then it would be best to identify and treat such a problem before that child graduates into society, and then must deal with the issue as an adult, with adult consequences.”

Various research studies have found that youth are criminalized more often in schools with police officers, which can hurt academic achievement and land more students in the juvenile justice system.

KyCIR contacted 11 other lawmakers who sponsored the resource officer bill, but none responded to requests for comment.

Kentucky lawmakers also passed Senate Bill 83 this year, prohibiting transgender girls from participating in school sports that don’t align with their biological sex. Supporters of the bill said it wouldn’t be fair to allow biologically male students to participate in girls’ sports because they have physical advantages. But critics, including Gov. Andy Beshear, called the bill discriminatory and said it would deny transgender students access to educational opportunities comparable to their peers.

Joe Bargione, a licensed psychologist and lead trainer for the Bounce Coalition, says policies like that – and the public discourse around them – can harm students psychologically. 

“The groups that have the highest rates of suicide or attempted suicides are our LGBTQ students,” he said. “It’s tough growing up for any child. But then, if I see that people in my community are trying to pass policies that devalue me as a child, that can have a truly negative effect.”

More than 23% of gay, lesbian and bisexual high school students attempted suicide in 2019 compared to 6% of heterosexual students, according to national data from the Kids Count Data Book.

Anxiety and depression rates are also disproportionately higher among children of color. In the U.S., 9% of high schoolers attempted suicide in 2019, but that rate was more than 25% for American Indian students, 12% for Black students and 13% for students who identify with two or more races.

Students speak up

Photo courtesy of the Kentucky Department of Education.

Charleigh Browning (left), a senior at Marion County High School, and other members of the Commissioner’s Student Advisory Council speak on student mental health at the Kentucky legislature’s Interim Joint Committee on Education meeting on Aug. 16. They were joined by Kentucky Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman (middle), who cited data on student mental health.

Legislators have taken some important steps to protect youth mental health. Senate Bill 102 was passed this year, requiring schools to track the number of mental health professionals in their building to meet the recommended 250-to-1 ratio of students to counselors. However, the legislature did not include funding to help schools to hire more counselors. 

Connor Flick, a recent high school graduate and another Kentucky Student Voice Team member, said the Commonwealth still has a long way to go.

“My mental health was never necessarily a priority,” said Flick, who graduated from Connor High School in Boone County this year. “The priority was always getting the work done and pushing yourself forward.”

Bajwa agreed. She said that she had little interaction with the counselor at her high school besides talks about colleges and a once-a-year suicide prevention video they played for the whole student body. She said she remembers filling out forms to request a visit with the mental health counselor, but no one ever followed up.

The Kentucky Department of Education’s student advisory council echoed these concerns with lawmakers at a legislative committee meeting in Frankfort last month. The council cited youth mental health summits and surveys conducted with young people across the state in the past few years to illustrate the mental health challenges that students were facing, including isolation, stress about the health of their families and concern about how they would pay bills. 

They asked legislators to help provide more comprehensive suicide prevention, expand mental health resources and treatment in schools, provide more training and increase the number of excused mental health absences students can use. 

Legislators at the meeting seemed receptive to their ideas and agreed that student mental health should be a priority. They also brought up concerns and questions about how to effectively implement the recommendations without overwhelming teachers and keeping students from taking advantage of mental health days.

Supporting schools

Bargione says access to mental health resources, trauma-informed education and crisis prevention training for students, educators and staff is one of the best ways to help kids. 

But while school counselors, teachers and administrators can help catch mental health concerns early so issues can be adequately addressed, that doesn’t mean schools can do it all on their own.

“We’re putting so much on the plates of our educators,” Bargione said. “In addition to the mental health pieces, they still gotta to do reading, writing, math and critical thinking skills. So how do we make that all fit?”

Michelle Sircy, school counseling specialist at Jefferson County Public Schools, said there must be adequate systems to ensure school counselors can do what they are trained for.

While the Kentucky Department of Education recommends school counselors dedicate 60% of their time to counseling and direct student services, she said they often get pulled onto other duties such as supervising hallways and bus loading or coordinating standardized testing.

“If we have our only trained mental health professionals doing other things besides providing mental health counseling to students, we’re really doing a disservice to our students,” Sircy said.

Sircy said the state is headed in the right direction by focusing on hiring more mental health professionals. But she urged lawmakers to consider creating a requirement about how school counselors need to spend their time. She also thinks Kentucky should expand its suicide prevention efforts. Currently, state law requires students to receive one suicide prevention workshop a year for 6th through 12th grade.

“Sixth grade is way too late to start suicide prevention,” she said. “Our students are struggling with suicidal ideation at a much, much younger age. So, how can we be more proactive instead of reactive with students’ mental health?”

If you or a loved one struggle with mental health or have suicidal thoughts and would like emotional support, you can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 — or 1-800-273-8255. Para Espanol haz clic aqui, o llame al número 988, o 1-888-628-9454.

Local mental health resources:

The post More Ky. youth are struggling with mental health. Are state lawmakers doing enough? appeared first on Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

A corporate landlord’s takeover spotlights racial inequities and displacement fears in west Louisville Wednesday, Aug 24 2022 

Stacey Young lived in a home that was bought by an Amherst Residential subsidiary in January. He moved from the house earlier this year after dealing with maintenance issues, communication woes and a stifling rent hike.

Photo: J. Tyler Franklin

Stacey Young lived in a home that was bought by an Amherst Residential subsidiary in January. He moved from the house earlier this year after dealing with maintenance issues, communication woes and a stifling rent hike.

This investigation is part of KyCIR’s Housing Project. Complete this survey to share tips, experiences and questions that can help shape our reporting.

Stacey Young said he got a letter late last year informing him that an out-of-state company had bought the bungalow he’s rented for nearly a decade in west Louisville’s Shawnee neighborhood. 

Young immediately had questions about the Texas-based firm: 

Would the new owner take care of the property? Would rent go up? Would Young, his wife and their three children get pushed out? 

“I’m feeling like I’m walking on eggshells, I don’t know what I’m dealin’ with,” he said. 

More than six months later, Young and his family were packing their things. 

Young said the property owner sent him an email in June saying he’d need to renew his lease and agree to pay $1,500 for rent – a near $670 increase compared to what he had previously paid – if he wanted to stay. 

“I can’t afford that,” Young said. “I’m out.”

The company that bought Young’s house is a subsidiary of Amherst Residential, a private firm based in Austin, Texas that’s building an empire of single-family homes across Jefferson County.

Amherst owns about 1,330 properties in Louisville purchased through at least 31 different subsidiaries — a catalog they’ve paid more than $152 million to build since 2016, according to an analysis of county property records by The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting. Nearly all the properties are single-family homes. 

The company has acquired more houses in Louisville than any other buyer this year – over 430 – according to our analysis. The majority of Amherst’s acquisitions, about seven in 10, were properties in west Louisville neighborhoods, including Shawnee, Chickasaw, Park Hill and Russell.

Amherst has emerged as the biggest private property owner in the area, where most residents are Black, and people are more likely to rent rather than own their home. 

Amherst’s subsidiaries are listed in records under the same address as the company’s Austin headquarters. They have obscure or abbreviated names – like AVRM LLC or BAF 2 LLC, which purchased Young’s home from his previous landlord in Shawnee. Amherst tenants are more familiar with Main Street Renewal. That’s the property management arm that handles maintenance requests, listings and other rental matters for Amherst.

KyCIR spoke with more than a dozen people living in Amherst-owned rental properties. Some complained about bad communication and hidden fees. Nearly all cited property maintenance as a major problem. 

We reviewed city records and found that one in 10 Amherst properties has an open property maintenance case for alleged violations ranging from uncut grass and busted doors to standing water, sewer backups and other issues. 

No other property owner has more open cases than Amherst, according to city records. And compared to the five private entities that own the most property in Louisville, Amherst has the highest percent of properties with an open case. Second was a nonprofit group with nearly 380 properties, of which 8% had open cases, while no other entity had more than 5% of its properties with an open case.

Records show Amherst’s west Louisville properties account for more than a third of its alleged code violations. But just 17% of Amherst’s housing portfolio is in the area, where the company spent $26.6 million buying more than 300 properties between January and May. 

Amherst spokesperson Alexandra Clements said in an emailed statement that the company is providing a vital need in communities amid a “historic under supply of single-family homes and restrictive mortgage lending qualifications.” 

The company repairs and renovates homes and rents to people who often don’t qualify for a mortgage loan, Clements said. Main Street Renewal employs a 20-person property management team to service tenants, hires local businesses as subcontractors, and supports residents by helping connect them with financial counseling, emergency food assistance and other resources, she said.

“We deeply care about our residents, the city and the communities we serve,” she said.

Amherst and other investor-backed landlords are transforming neighborhoods across the country as they expand their portfolios of family homes for rent, shrinking opportunities for people to buy homes and reducing affordability by raising rents, said Elora Lee Raymond, an assistant professor of city and regional planning at the Georgia Institute of Technology. 

She said the companies tend to evict more tenants and drive gentrification and displacement – especially in communities of color. Black households have also faced long-lasting barriers to homeownership such as lending discrimination, racist housing policies like redlining and income inequality, which have widened racial wealth gaps. 

Many Black communities and households are still dealing with the lingering effects of the 2008 financial crisis and the rash of foreclosures that cost many U.S. households their homes but hit Black and Latino families, who were more likely than whites to be saddled with high-cost subprime mortgages from lenders, particularly hard. 

In 2019, the Urban Institute, a nonprofit policy group, reported that Black ownership rates had dropped “to levels not seen since the 1960s, when private race-based discrimination was legal.” 

In June, Raymond warned lawmakers at a U.S. House committee hearing about the negative impacts companies like Amherst can have on neighborhoods.

“The loss of homeownership opportunities and rising cost of owner-occupied housing creates lasting harm to the new generation of homeowners and to racial and ethnic minorities historically barred from homeownership,” she said during the hearing.

Raymond urged policymakers to mandate rent controls, eviction reforms and strengthen tenant protections.

In Louisville, city officials know — and aren’t surprised — that investor-backed companies like Amherst are buying homes here and across the county. 

It’s disheartening, said Marilyn Harris, the director of the Louisville Metro Office of Housing and Community Development. 

But she said there’s not much the city can do to stop the companies from buying homes. 

Jessica Wethington, a spokesperson for Mayor Greg Fischer, said pretty much the same – that the local government can’t interfere with the private market. In Cincinnati, Ohio, a government agency outbid private investors to buy nearly 200 homes that the city plans to renovate and rent to tenants at affordable prices. But Wethington said no plans like that are brewing in Louisville.

Advocates and council members want to enact policies that increase rental market transparency and protect tenants but worry that any legislative proposals dealing with landlord and tenant relations would be limited by the state’s existing Uniform Landlord Tenant Act. 

The act bans local governments from enacting any other ordinance that relates directly to “landlord and tenant relationships” and an array of housing policies. 

Meanwhile, housing experts see no signs that companies like Amherst will slow their expansion into cities like Louisville. 

And without action from policymakers, tenants and neighborhoods are left bearing the brunt of the burgeoning industry’s impact. 

Property maintenance issues

Stacey Young's Amherst rental house in Shawnee, west Louisville.

Photo: J. Tyler Franklin

The home Stacey Young lived in on 41st Street for nearly a decade before it was bought by a subsidiary of Amherst Residential.

Young, 48, moved to west Louisville as a teenager. He works as a line cook, and his wife is a bookkeeper at a public school. He said they had a tough time with Amherst’s property management arm, Main Street Renewal, before they moved.

He’s not an email guy. But he said he could rarely get the property manager on the phone; they only discussed maintenance requests and other issues via text or email. Days would pass before he’d get a response. When issues were fixed, Young said the work was often shoddy. Some problems never got handled.

An Amherst spokesperson said the company worked with Young to resolve several issues — including a leaky roof and clogged drains.

Young said the roof started leaking again. And after the drains were cleared, he was surprised to see a $100 charge added to his monthly rent bill. After that, Young said, he often decided to let maintenance issues go unfixed out of fear the landlord would charge him for the work. 

Or he rolled up his sleeves.

In April of this year, Louisville Metro code enforcement officers opened a property maintenance case on Young’s home for a busted gutter, overgrown bushes, an overflowing trash can, a broken-down car in the driveway and high grass, according to records.

The inspector noted that Young assured he’d clean up the trash and take care of other issues. Young didn’t remember the trash issue when KyCIR interviewed him, but he said he got rid of the broken car – and instead of waiting for the company to remedy the issue, he and his teenage son got to work clearing the brush.  He worried that he’d get stuck with a bill if the violation escalated to a citation and fee.

“I’m sure they’ll try to put that back on me,” he said.

After code enforcement officers levied a $600 citation against the property last month, Young said Amherst tried to tack it onto his monthly bill. He’s moved from the house now, but still worries he’ll have to fight the fine. 

The property maintenance case on Young’s former rental home is still open, according to city records. It’s one of more than 130 open cases at Amherst-owned properties that city code enforcement officers are currently investigating. Over a third of those cases are in zip codes encompassing or including parts of west Louisville. 

Caitlin Bowling, a spokesperson for the Louisville Metro Department of Codes and Regulations, said the city “is taking action.”

‘’We have 130 open cases, which by definition is taking action,” she said in an emailed statement.

The Louisville Metro property maintenance code states that the property owner is responsible for ensuring properties adhere to local ordinances, and occupants are responsible for keeping their space “clean, sanitary and safe.”

An Amherst spokesperson said the company works with every tenant to promptly resolve maintenance issues, but it’s up to tenants to ensure their home is in line with property regulations — and any violation is a tenant’s responsibility.

KyCIR talked with several tenants who live in homes with open property maintenance cases. We saw busted gutters, broken windows, and the scars of recent fires. Tenants talked about mice, mold and trouble getting the grass and hedges cut. Several of them said that their previous landlords would handle most of the landscaping work, but that Amherst tried to push the responsibility on them or that they were confused about who was supposed to do the work.

A pair of homes on 42nd Street that are owned by a subsidiary of Amherst Residential. Shavon Bibbs moved from the home on the left after dealing with communication issues and maintenance problems.

Photo: J. Tyler Franklin

A pair of homes on 42nd Street that are owned by a subsidiary of Amherst Residential. Shavon Bibbs moved from the home on the left after dealing with communication issues and maintenance problems.

Shavon Bibbs rented an Amherst-owned home on North 42nd Street that is the subject of a property code violation case that’s been open since late January — more than two weeks after it was bought by Amherst’s subsidiary, BAF 2 LLC. The reason: an unkempt yard and because the home isn’t listed in the city’s rental registry. 

In March, records show a city code enforcement officer noted that Bibbs had cleaned up the property and the fine would be waived “because the owner is putting the fines on the tenant.”

Those aren’t the only issues Bibbs said she’s had with the company. She said she got fed up with Amherst shortly after the company bought the home because its property management company failed to communicate how to set up rent payments or report maintenance requests. 

Soon after, her toilet wouldn’t stop running and her water bill climbed to nearly $1,000 a month, she said.

Earlier this summer, Bibbs started looking for a new landlord.

“I’m ready to be done with them,” she said.

A few blocks away, on North 43rd Street, Alyssa Woods’s Amherst-owned rental home stands out from the others on the block in Shawnee with neat yards and clean windows. 

City records show code enforcement officers opened a property maintenance case there last month because the house had overgrown grass and weeds in the front and back yard that needed cutting. Woods said she’s had trouble getting that done since an Amherst subsidiary bought the home in January. 

Her gutter is also rusted, sagging and leaking. Bullet holes dot the front siding. Woods said water seeps through the walls. She worries about her kids getting sick from what she said is mold on the floor.

“It’s not livable,” Woods said.

The home on 43rd Street that Alyssa Woods said is plagued by maintenance issues.

Photo: J. Tyler Franklin

The home on 43rd Street that Alyssa Woods said is plagued by maintenance issues.

Amherst didn’t respond to questions about Bibbs and Woods’s property maintenance issues or complaints.

But Clements, the Amherst spokesperson, said the company plans to invest $55,000 per home on renovations in the coming years. Already, she said the company has invested more than $30 million to repair and renovate homes “with durable flooring, new roofs and siding, stainless steel appliances and other high-quality amenities.”

Josh Poe, a tenant organizer with the Louisville-based Root Cause Research Center, said city officials should more rigorously enforce the property maintenance code at properties owned by corporate landlords. 

“They’re not being aggressive enough,” he said.

Property maintenance is a key issue for District 5 Council Member Donna Purvis, a Democrat whose west Louisville district covers or includes parts of the Chickasaw, Shawnee, Portland and Russell neighborhoods.

She hears frequent complaints from constituents about properties with junked cars, overgrown yards, or busted windows.

Photo: Jacob Ryan

A vacant Amherst-owned property in Louisville.

Purvis and several other Metro Council Democrats are sponsoring a proposed amendment to the city’s rental registry ordinance introduced in June that would require random code enforcement inspections at rental properties. The proposal is currently tabled in the council’s Public Works committee, which meets every other Tuesday.

Currently, the city doesn’t start property maintenance inspections unless someone files a complaint.

When KyCIR interviewed Purvis, she said she didn’t know much about Amherst or the company’s Louisville expansion. But she bemoaned the company’s track record of property maintenance issues and expansion across the city, especially in west Louisville.

“How did we let this happen?” she said.

Yet Purvis, like other Metro officials interviewed by KyCIR, said there’s not much the local government can do to stop the companies from buying up property. 

“This is an enterprising and free capital world,” she said. 

‘1 million houses’

Amherst is part of a broader trend. 

Other big investor-backed firms — like Blackstone, Tricon, and American Homes 4 Rent — are also buying thousands of family homes across the country, renting them out, and promising investors a return on the rent revenue over time with interest. 

A subsidiary of Blackstone, Home Partners of America, owns 30 homes in Louisville, according to online property records. The company’s rent-to-own program “enables families that would otherwise be locked out of traditional single-family housing to access homes they love,” a Blackstone spokesperson said in an emailed statement. 

He didn’t speak to some of the criticism that investor-backed landlords like Blackstone and Amherst have faced.

The companies’ access to investor cash is akin to a low-interest loan they can use to dominate tight housing markets by outbidding would-be homebuyers with favorable cash offers and buying more houses, said Desiree Fields, an associate professor of Geography and Global Metropolitan Studies at the University of California, Berkeley

“It is a type of financial engineering that is available to a particular type of actor in the financial world…because of the scale of assets that they control,” she said.

Fields said this relatively new industry can be traced to the 2008 housing crisis: With many of the people who lost their homes then pushed into the rental market, investors saw opportunities to profit. Black and Latino people were hit hardest by the foreclosure crisis. 

Amherst’s office in Austin is just a few miles from company CEO Sean Dobson’s sprawling, country club mansion that’s valued at more than $4 million, according to property records.

Dobson made billions from the mortgage industry in the years leading up to and just after the 2008 housing crisis. He turned to single-family home rentals in 2011, according to a 2019 profile in Fortune Magazine. 

Amherst Residential was founded in 2012 and last year reported owning or leasing more than 43,000 homes in 28 cities across the country, according to a 2021 company report. Their goal is one million homes, according to the profile.

“I have $5 billion to $6 billion from outside investors knocking on the door,” he told Fortune. “In the end, we’ll get to 1 million houses.”

Investor-backed companies like Amherst hold an incalculable advantage in the nation’s competitive housing market with access to lots of cash and technology that helps them review hundreds of home listings daily, Fields said.

“It’s the way the housing market is going,” she said. “It’s unequal and people just can’t compete against these companies.”

Paula Barmore, president of the Greater Louisville Association of Realtors, has been selling homes in Louisville for more than 20 years. 

A decade ago, she said there could be up to 10,000 homes for sale in the city at any given time. Today, there are only about 1,500.

So, she takes notice when a company like Amherst made hundreds of real estate transactions in the first half of the year.

“They’re changing the landscape of our neighborhoods,” she said. 

“We need to think about what we can do”

Young wasn’t surprised when KyCIR told him that Amherst has more parcels of land in west Louisville than any private owner.

He said Mirage Properties, the company that sold his house to Amherst, was synonymous with renting in west Louisville. Records show Amherst bought nearly every house it owns in the area from Mirage. Young knows family and friends who rented from Mirage and now live in Amherst properties.

“They’re all over the place over here,” he said.

West Louisville is the type of community where investor-backed equity companies, like Amherst, can do a lot of harm, said Raymond, the Georgia Tech professor. As the housing stock shrinks, so do opportunities for people to buy homes — which is widely considered an essential element of wealth building.

As the companies buy up properties and rent them out, they extract equity from neighborhoods that need it most, said Tony Curtis, the executive director of the Metropolitan Housing Coalition.

Without action from lawmakers, the threat of displacement and inequity only grows as investor-backed companies expand, he said. 

“It’s a huge issue,” Curtis said. “They’re taking housing off the market, and the opportunities to build wealth are being snatched away.”

Amherst’s investment in west Louisville also comes as a flurry of projects and investments focused on the area are sparking concerns about gentrification and displacement, including the establishment of a controversial tax increment finance district poised to pump millions of dollars into the West End for yet-to-be-determined economic development efforts.

Wethington, the mayor’s spokesperson, said the city is trying to increase access to homeownership and help close wealth gaps with programs that help people pay for down payments or make home improvements. 

She also touted $116 million budgeted for affordable housing and noted that the city’s land development code is under review. 

Those measures are attempts at “addressing some of the impacts on the housing market and on the well-being of our residents and our neighborhoods created by these investor buyers,” she said.

Jecorey Arthur, a District 4 Democrat representing sections of west Louisville and downtown, has ideas for legislation that would support renters. Some of his ideas include banning landlords from evicting tenants for matters that aren’t clear lease violations and giving tenants the first option to purchase properties that landlords want to sell.

“When you lose local ownership, you lose local control,” said Arthur, whose district includes the western reaches of downtown into the Russell neighborhood. 

Arthur acknowledges that some of his ideas could face opposition or even legal challenges if implemented. But he said it’s time for the council to step up.

“Instead of talking about what we cannot do, let’s look at what we can do,” he said.

Looking forward

Photo: J. Tyler Franklin

Stacey Young had to move from his rental home after his new landlord dramatically increased the rent, he said.

Young has lived in west Louisville since he was a teenager and knows the area well. He is frustrated that he had to move, but he said the rent increase Amherst wanted wasn’t worth it. 

Now, he’s focused on the opportunity ahead. Maybe this will motivate him to expedite his plans to build up his credit, save up some money and try to buy a home, he said. 

Right now, Young, his wife and children are staying with family while he finds something more permanent. He’d like to move to a quieter block in a neighborhood with fewer safety issues than where he lived. 

But as Young leaves, he can’t help but worry about what will happen to neighborhoods like Shawnee as outside-investor-backed firms like Amherst buy more and more homes. 

He wonders what will happen to the people who live there and how many more will get priced out.

“It just puts some people in tough situations,” he said. “For some folks, this is all we have.”

The post A corporate landlord’s takeover spotlights racial inequities and displacement fears in west Louisville appeared first on Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

Letcher County jail evacuates after flood cuts off running water Friday, Jul 29 2022 

Brown flood water inundates the streets of Hindman, Ky. in Knott County. Water comes up a few feet from the ground.

Katie Myers

Downtown Whitesburg, Ky., in Letcher Co., sees devastating floods after heavy rain in late July.

The Kentucky Department of Corrections evacuated 117 people held at the Letcher County Jail after intense flooding in the area cut off the facility’s access to running water.

Letcher County jailer Bert Slone said the water crested a few hundred feet from the jail, but much of town could be without water for two weeks.

Gov. Andy Beshear has confirmed 16 flood related deaths so far, with more deaths expected in the coming days. 

The incarcerated people held at the jail didn’t have a chance to tell loved ones on the outside where they were headed, Slone said, but that they will be able to make phone calls once they’ve arrived at another Department of Corrections facility. Corrections officials have not yet responded to a request for comment or to confirm where the evacuees were headed.

“One of the hardest things to do is to put yourself in the place of a parent, an uncle an aunt a brother or sister that you could have someone in a jail and somebody would move them and not tell you anything about it,” Slone said, but added that the Department of Corrections doesn’t release transportation information ahead of time for security reasons. “We’ve talked to a lot of family members today and tried to explain why we moved them.”

Jails are required to provide hot and cold running water as well as at least one water fountain, according to Kentucky’s jail standards. Letcher County jail staff brought in bottled water, but they asked the Department of Corrections to transport the people held there because they didn’t expect the water to be restored for weeks.

The North Fork of the Kentucky River winds back and forth between Slone’s house in the Upper Bottom part of town and Letcher County’s jail and courthouse on Main Street, less than a mile away. Slone’s brother pulled in the driveway early Thursday morning to warn that a flood was coming.

Slone went inside to gather his family. He said it only felt like a couple of minutes had passed, but when he went back outside the truck was gone and the water had already surrounded the house, trapping the family inside.

Cellular service was down as well, so Slone communicated with jail staff using Facebook messenger and contacted the state to start arranging for an evacuation.

The water receded enough for Slone to get to the jail around 5 p.m. Thursday. Department of Corrections staff from all over the state started gathering to help transport the 117 people held in the jail, with the first convoy carrying incarcerated women leaving around 1 a.m. Friday morning. The last of three transportation convoys left the jail around noon, Slone said.

The whole town has been assessing the damage, including Slone’s staff. 

“I just had a guard come in the door, and his family lost their home. I hadn’t seen him for several days,” Slone said.

Flood waters have disrupted running water across the region, according to Mark Lewis, the general manager of the Letcher County Water and Sewer District, a water distributor that buys water from nearby sources, including the city-run water plant that supplies water to the jail. 

Lewis said the county’s water and sewer district services more than 3,000 customers and purchases water from Knott County Water, City of Jenkins and the City of Whitesburg. Lewis said the Letcher County district was assessing damage to their distribution systems, but they couldn’t get water flowing again until the other water sources start supplying water again.

“We are kind of at the mercy of the other entities, they have to have water to provide to us,” Lewis said.

The post Letcher County jail evacuates after flood cuts off running water appeared first on Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

Shawnee Park police shooting highlights arrest warrant policy gaps Wednesday, Jul 20 2022 

Shawnee Park Louisville police shooting crime scene.

Stephanie Wolf

Louisville police tape off the scene at Shawnee Park on the evening of July 10, 2022.

As the Louisville Metro Police Department continues investigating the officer-involved shooting at Shawnee Park last week, the department also faces scrutiny from community members who say officers endangered bystanders.

The Dirt Bowl basketball tournament drew hundreds of people to Shawnee Park on July 10. The games were over for the day when officers attempted to arrest 30-year-old Herbert Lee, who was wanted on multiple outstanding warrants, but some of the crowd still lingered. 

Lee allegedly ran from the police and shot at them, hitting one officer’s bulletproof vest, before they returned fire. Lee was shot in the “extremities,” according to LMPD officials, and has since been released from the hospital. He’s now being held on a $1 million cash bond and faces several charges, including attempted murder of a police officer.

“It’s gonna be in the back of my head till the day I die,” said Bruce Sweeney, who was at the scene and coaches a youth basketball team called the Breewayy Warriors, named in honor of Breonna Taylor

“There are kids out here. And they had to see this,” he said. “It sickens me.”

Police officials did not answer questions from KyCIR about their decision to engage Lee at the west Louisville park. 

But the incident highlights broader concerns about how LMPD serves warrants and what precautions officers should take to keep the public safe. KyCIR reviewed the department’s protocols for serving warrants and found no guidelines for how officers should handle arrests in a public setting.

The department’s standard operating procedures require officers to fill out a risk assessment form that is reviewed and approved by a commanding officer before executing a warrant inside a building or residence so officers can consider the safety of the building and weigh the risks of entering. However, the nearly 900-page document mentions nothing about approaching someone in a park, on the sidewalk, or in any public space where other people might be around. 

LMPD isn’t the only police department without a clear policy for handling situations like the one at Shawnee Park last week. But, according to a model arrest policy by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the location, timing and manner of an arrest should be planned carefully “to minimize the danger to officers, suspects and third parties.”

Kungu Njuguna, a policy strategist for ACLU Kentucky, said incidents like the Shawnee Park shooting only increase divides between police and the Black community, especially since this happened after the Dirt Bowl, an event with a longstanding history in the West End. 

“It adds to that generational trauma of distrust and the belief that the police aren’t here to protect us, they’re here to harm us,” he said.

Questions about accountability

LMPD officers gathered at Shawnee Park shortly before attempting to arrest Herbert Lee.

LMPD body camera footage

LMPD officers gathered at Shawnee Park shortly before attempting to arrest Herbert Lee.

The department is conducting an internal investigation of the Shawnee Park incident, despite a previous agreement that Kentucky State Police would investigate all of their officer-involved shootings. Louisville’s newly created Inspector General’s Office also announced an investigation into the shooting.

A department spokesperson said officers were patrolling the tournament when they recognized Lee, who at the time had about a dozen outstanding warrants against him, including theft of a firearm and possession of a handgun by a convicted felon. LMPD Chief Erika Shields said during a press interview shortly after the shooting that officers were “very judicial” to wait until the tournament had ended to serve the warrant. 

But Mike Lawlor, an associate professor of criminal justice at the University of New Haven, said the officers’ decision to pursue Lee in the park was reckless. Unless the situation was urgent and the person presented an immediate danger to the public, he said LMPD should have waited.  

“The police knew or should have known this guy was carrying a firearm,” Lawlor said. “He had a track record of this. He had known convictions for it.”

If any bystanders had gotten hurt in the shootout, he said the city would likely have a lawsuit on its hands, “and the argument would be that you knew or should have known that it was likely innocent people would be injured here, yet your officers did it anyway.”

Lawlor said there should always be some type of accountability when it comes to serving warrants or pursuing suspects, despite the location. 

“More and more police departments are putting very severe restrictions on high-speed chases and no-knock warrants because they’re just a recipe for disaster,” he said. “Innocent people can get killed.”

Three months after Breonna Taylor was killed by police during a raid on her home in 2020, the Louisville Metro Council voted unanimously to ban no-knock warrants in the city. And this year LMPD reimplemented a policy to reduce deaths and injuries caused by vehicle police chases, after seeing a significant increase in bystander deaths and injuries.

The Shawnee Park shooting didn’t involve a no-knock warrant or a car chase and nobody died in the incident, but it still highlights concerns about when the pursuit of a suspect outweighs the risks — and how unclear protocols and risky decision-making have the potential to end in tragedy.

Community impact and distrust

On July 14, four days after the shooting, police officials released a partial and edited version of the body camera footage from the incident, saying the rest would be available “upon the completion of necessary reductions based on Kentucky open records law.” (Prior to 2020, it was LMPD policy to release body camera footage within 24 hours of a police shooting.)

That evening, activists gathered at the Carl Braden Memorial Center in the Parkland neighborhood for a press conference, where they expressed frustration about the incident – and skepticism about what police claim happened at Shawnee Park. 

“Louisville Metro Police Department, you have failed this city again,” said community activist Chris Will, commenting on the limited footage. “Why would you not show the interaction from the beginning right to the end?”

One activist at the gathering, who goes by A.B., questioned why officers chose to arrest Lee in a public place, “with women and children at a family event.”

“The police was there to protect us,” he said. “Not to add to our trauma to this community and our kids.”

Another activist, Jeff Compton, suggested that officers wouldn’t have approached the situation the same way if it happened in a white community.

“For them to chase him in the middle of the park with kids playing in a family environment … Would you guys do this if it was St. Matthews? Would you do it if it was in Georgetown?” he said. “No, you only want to do it in our communities.”

Editor’s Note: LMPD released full body camera footage of the Shawnee Park shooting on Wednesday, shortly before KyCIR published this story. 

The post Shawnee Park police shooting highlights arrest warrant policy gaps appeared first on Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

Here’s why most candidates running for judge in Kentucky don’t need your vote Wednesday, Jun 15 2022 

When Jefferson County residents cast their votes for Circuit Court judge this election day, they’ll choose between Julie Kaelin, a current District Court judge and former public defender, and Ebert Haegele, a prosecutor who currently leads the Narcotics Division of the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office in Louisville.

The candidates come from opposite sides of the legal system. According to Kaelin, her experience representing people accused of crimes gives her a perspective that is often lacking among judges. 

Haegele, on the other hand, said his prosecutorial background means he’s used to making tough decisions similar to the decisions judges make from the bench.

On November 8, voters will decide which perspective they want in a judge and, in doing so, impact the decisions that come out of the court for the next eight years.

Most voters in Kentucky, however, will not face a choice between two candidates like Kaelin and Haegele. Out of this year’s 289 nonpartisan judicial elections held across the state, 210 are uncontested. In other words, voters have a choice between candidates in only 27% of Kentucky judicial elections this year. 

Judicial elections are supposed to give the public a chance to choose its judges. In practice, however, the structure of these contests keep many well qualified candidates out of the race. The result is a bench with narrower legal experience and perspectives, a campaign system which is largely only accessible to the well-known and well-connected, and a right to vote that often lacks a real choice to make.

Jasmine Heiss, who directs the In Our Backyards initiative studying rural mass incarceration at the Vera Institute of Justice, said judicial elections are often overlooked compared to high-profile races for executive or legislative branch positions.

“The whims, the discretion and the orientation of an individual judicial decision maker can have an impact on the rest of a person’s case, and potentially the rest of a person’s life,” Heiss said. “Despite that power and that consequential impact, I think very few people when they go to the polls fully understand or appreciate what kinds of decisions judges are making.”

The lack of competition is especially visible in rural Kentucky. Voters won’t see a single competitive judicial race in 35 counties. Twenty of those sit east of Lexington, stretching across Appalachia from Robertson County in the north to Harlan County in the south.

This means people in those areas have little ability to hold their judges accountable for the important decisions they make.

“In small places where the intimate details of people’s lives are sometimes known to people on the bench, and where judges perhaps don’t see adequate resources outside of the justice system or the court system, they can really take on an overly large role in the public health and social space,” Heiss said.

What’s in a name?

Candidates and sitting judges give plenty of reasons why judicial ballots aren’t filled with fresh faces every election:

Only licensed attorneys can run for judge, so the pool of candidates is inherently small. Many voters don’t interact with the courts regularly, so the role judges play in government is less visible.

And there are a lot of seats to fill. Each voter will pick a candidate in anywhere from five to 43 judicial races, making it difficult to make informed decisions for every single one.

Most elections for public office run through a party system, marking each candidate a Republican, Democrat, third party or independent. Even if voters don’t recognize a name, they can make an informed choice based on the party a candidate represents on the ballot.

But Kentucky’s Code of Judicial Ethics prohibits judges and candidates from engaging in certain partisan activities. This includes identifying as a party’s candidate, acting as a party leader and campaigning on partisan endorsements. 

Kentucky Supreme Court Justice John Minton Jr. said while the code correctly restricts partisan actions to keep judges independent and impartial, it has the side effect of leaving judicial candidates with far fewer resources than candidates for partisan offices.

“If you’re a nonpartisan candidate, there’s nobody waiting to greet you there,” Minton said. “It’s an independence that makes the judicial campaigning much more difficult, and it makes the fundraising very difficult.”

All of these factors combine to make judicial elections some of the most low-information and low-engagement races on the ballot. Candidates told KyCIR they may end up working as hard to make voters aware of their race in the first place as they do convincing those voters to support them come election day.

Kim Green, a public defender who supervises the Department of Public Advocacy’s Capital Trials Branch, ran in a primary for a Circuit Judge seat against four opponents, and said this issue became apparent to her over the course of the campaign.

“A lot of what I’ve come to realize is how little is known about what a Circuit Court judge does,” Green said. “Because it’s a down ballot nonpartisan race, I think a lot of times people don’t have much information when they walk into the ballot box to make a decision. And so a huge part of the campaign for me has simply just been getting information out there.”

Kim Green, a public defender who ran for circuit court judge this year.

Kim Green, a public defender who ran for circuit court judge this year.

This makes name recognition the most critical factor in winning judicial office. Sitting incumbents consequently have an advantage from the start over any challengers, having built up familiarity with the public over their prior years in office.

Incumbent judges are running unopposed in 195 seats this year, filling about two-thirds of the state court system. Only 28 incumbents face a competitive reelection campaign.

Bob Heleringer, a former state representative and District Judge candidate from Jefferson County, said there is always interest in running for judge among attorneys, but that incumbents’ reputations dissuade would-be challengers from running against them.

“I don’t see it as any lack of interest. When there’s vacancies, there’s lots of folks that file [as a candidate],” Heleringer said. “Incumbent judges that are unopposed are that way because lawyers think, by and large, they’re doing overall a good job.”

Heleringer said that because most of the public has little knowledge about judicial candidates and judicial power in general, some candidates are able to win office easily off of “magical names” that connect them to a more prominent family member.

In May, he bought advertisement space in The Courier Journal that listed his own endorsements for the May 17 primaries, in what he said was an effort to provide voters with more information to vote off of than just name recognition.

(Read: Eighteen Jefferson County candidates for judge advance to November election)

One race in Eastern Kentucky illustrates the power of incumbency. Boyd County’s only competitive election is to succeed retiring District Judge Gerald Reams, who was first appointed to the seat in 2000 to fill a vacancy.

One of the two candidates running is Anna Ruth, a court-appointed Domestic Relations Commissioner who hears complex domestic cases and makes recommendations on them to the county’s Circuit Court. Ruth said her interest in running for the seat was stopped by Reams’ first appointment to the bench in 2000.

“At the time I congratulated him, went to his swearing in, and told him then that I would never run against him,” Ruth said. “And as Judge Reams is retiring, I had decided maybe it was time to throw my hat in the ring again for District Court.”

Ruth will be on the November ballot against Devon Reams, an assistant county attorney and daughter of the retiring Judge Reams. Reams said although her relation to the retiring incumbent may affect some voters, she is confident in campaigning on her individual reputation across the county – both in her legal work and in her social connections.

Devon Reams, a candidate for District Court judge in Boyd County.

Devon Reams, a candidate for District Court judge in Boyd County.

“[People] will vote for me because they know me personally,” Reams said in an email. “I am proud of my last name, but the relationships I have formed over the years will take me much further than my last name.”

Candidates who are less well-known have to build name recognition for themselves – which of course requires a significant amount of funding to buy yard signs, billboards, radio ads and so on. This ends up placing another filter onto would-be candidates in their personal wealth and connections.

Green, the Lexington public defender, said the combined demands of fundraising, campaigning and continuing to work for a living can make the task of overcoming the name recognition gap seem overwhelming.

“The first thing people told me when I wanted to run for judge was, ‘You’re going to have to raise X amount of money,’ and that’s a daunting prospect,” Green said. “I think a lot of people feel like it’s a bit of a monumental task to run for judge, plus also keep going with whatever your law practice happens to be.”

There are other ways to pick judges. Most states use a combination of elections or appointments to choose who sits on the bench, but Kentucky is one of only ten states that selects all judges for every term through nonpartisan elections.

Heiss, of the Vera Institute of Justice said the process, while imperfect, allows voters to hold judges directly accountable, but a more effective system would keep people engaged with the judiciary between election years.

“I do think that there’s a real opportunity to have a well-functioning [election] system, if there is attention on the kinds of decisions that judges are making,” Heiss said. “A really important policy question is, what would meaningful judicial oversight and accountability look like, such that people had a real mechanism to engage with and understand the system much more frequently than during elections? And I think that could actually be transformative.”

The post Here’s why most candidates running for judge in Kentucky don’t need your vote appeared first on Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

Louisville public defenders claim ‘retaliation’ against union effort Monday, May 23 2022 

The Jefferson County Public Defender’s office management has been refusing to negotiate in good faith with the newly formed union representing attorneys within the office, according to a complaint issued by the National Labor Relations Board last week.

Attorneys with the public defender’s office voted to unionize under the International Brotherhood of Electric Workers Local Union 369 in January, citing difficult working conditions such as low pay, high caseloads, and a lack of transparency regarding important office decisions.

The Louisville-Jefferson County Public Defender Corporation has an annual budget of $9.2 million, according to tax filings, and represents poor people in Jefferson County who come up against the legal system. Law360 reported in October that the starting salary for public defenders in Louisville is among the lowest in the country, at $45,000.

In a complaint filed on May 19, the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board based in Cincinnati accuses the office management, led by Chief Public Defender Leo Smith, of violating federal labor laws by “failing and refusing to bargain collectively and in good faith.”

The complaint is based on a series of charges filed by the union with the board claiming management has failed to recognize the union as the representative of its employees and refused to furnish information necessary to start the bargaining process.

“The corporation has flatly refused to negotiate or provide any requested information to its lawyers’ union,” IBEW Local Union 369 General Counsel Ben Basil said in an email.

Management has until June 2 to respond to the allegations and a hearing before an administrative law judge has been scheduled for July 20. After the hearing, the board can issue orders requiring employers to stop or to compensate employees for previous unfair labor practices. Both parties can challenge orders in the U.S. Court of Appeals.

Management has hired Smith & Smith Attorneys, a prominent labor law firm that union representatives say has a reputation for union busting tactics.

Chief Public Defender Smith has yet to respond to requests for comment for this article. He is expected to answer questions about the unionization process during a Metro Council budget hearing tonight.

W. Kevin Smith of Smith & Smith has not yet responded to an emailed request for comment.

The union believes management has retaliated against members of the bargaining unit, as well.

The union filed a charge with the federal labor relations board in late March alleging management outsourced the work previously handled by a union member to a subcontractor to retaliate against and discourage union activity.

The union member was the sole attorney working in the mental inquest warrant unit, a division of the public defender’s office representing people facing involuntary treatment for mental health issues. A mental inquest warrant allows police to take custody of an individual and involuntarily commit them to a mental institution, for example, or require them to take prescription drugs.

Management disbanded the unit in March, according to the charge filed by the union, and mental inquest warrant cases were subcontracted out to a private attorney. The union requested more information about the reasoning for the change, including the amount paid to the subcontractor, but management from the public defender’s office has not disclosed that information, according to the charge.

“Subcontracting of MIW work raises serious concerns about the corporation’s representation of vulnerable people who do not have realistic alternatives for legal representation other than the public defender corporation,” Basil of the IBEW said. It also raises concerns about the corporation’s stewardship of public money provided to it to represent MIW clients – clients the corporation now refuses to represent directly.”

The organizing process has been tense since the start. Smith sent an all-staff email during December, before staff voted to join the union, urging attorneys to vote “no” on unionization.

People organizing within the office were “creating the specter of an ‘enemy’ by and through this union organizing campaign,” Smith said in the email.

“This campaign has pulled back the curtain on the illusory enemy we are now confronting – it is the cynical and insidious creation of a few self-centered, disgruntled lawyers,” Smith wrote. Smith said the campaign was dividing the public defender’s office and undermining the important work performed by the attorneys.

The attorneys within the public defender’s union say the organizing process hasn’t changed the values and goals of the attorneys.

“They continue to fight for their clients and act in those clients’ best interest,” the union said in a press release in January.

“The decision to take this course of action reflects those values, as they firmly believe this course of action is the best way to ensure the needs of their clients — both current and prospective — will best be met.”

The post Louisville public defenders claim ‘retaliation’ against union effort appeared first on Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

Meet the Florida think tank pushing for welfare restrictions in Kentucky Friday, May 6 2022 

During a legislative committee meeting in March, members of the Kentucky House of Representatives gathered to debate a controversial welfare reform bill that, just a couple of weeks later, would be signed into law.

Republican Rep. David Meade of District 80 read off a number of statistics related to House Bill 7, emphasizing claims that Kentucky Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients are misusing benefits (SNAP) and that many Medicaid recipients are actually ineligible. The goal of the bill, he said, is to eliminate fraud in the welfare system, reduce dependency on public assistance and get people back to work. 

But when asked where the data he had been reciting came from, Meade said the majority of it was provided by a 2016 University of Kentucky study as well as a third party group — the Foundation for Government Accountability.

The Foundation for Government Accountability (FGA) is a conservative think tank based in Naples, Florida that doesn’t disclose its donors and has a history of pushing what many experts have called “junk social science.” Its four main areas of focus are election integrity and welfare, health care and workforce reforms. 

“A national group and high-priced Kentucky lobbyists aggressively shopped a national agenda around slashing public benefits,” said Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocate and a critic of House Bill 7.

Kentucky is especially fertile ground for this kind of policy, but advocates say it’s part of a national trend of states attempting to restrict safety net features using a “one size fits all” model seen in legislation developed by groups who often have no stake in the community.  

When Meade acknowledged the fingerprints of a conservative Florida-based think tank upon public policy debate in Kentucky, the moment served to underscore the success that unified conservative messaging is having in altering the delivery of social services in America, one state at a time.

 And while there were significant changes in HB7 and compromises made by the time the bill was passed in April, advocates remain concerned that groups like this will continue to push back against the systems that are meant to protect the state’s most vulnerable citizens, children and families. 

“It really seems like we’re trying to punish people for being poor,” said Democratic Rep. Mary Lou Marzian of Louisville.

Who are they?

The FGA was founded in 2011 by Tarren Bragdon, who left his seat in the state legislature in Maine to pursue policy behind the scenes. 

With the help of its lobbying arm, the Opportunity Solutions Project, the FGA is more powerful today than ever. According to its 2021 annual report, the group had a hand in influencing over 500 reforms across the country. It is currently active in 32 states and through its policy work has gotten 9.5 million people off of public assistance in the last four years.

While the FGA and Opportunity Solutions Project have been outspoken and public about their policy goals, they are less transparent when it comes to their revenue. Registered as a tax-exempt political nonprofit under section 501(c)(4) of the Internal Revenue Code, the organization doesn’t have to disclose donors and is considered a “dark money” group. 

While the FGA did not respond to requests for an interview, its latest report shows it brought in $12.9 million last year, a 21% increase from the year prior. 

The FGA is also associated with several other conservative organizations, including the American Legislative Exchange Council and the States Policy Network, both of which are known for promoting Republican policy goals at the state level.

The Florida nonprofit has ramped up its presence in Kentucky in recent years, working to advance bills involving restrictions to unemployment, food assistance, cash assistance and health care. 

“Some sanctimonious outside group like the FGA wants to waltz in here with millionaire salaries and tell you that somehow they’re going to do it right,” said Rev. Kent Gilbert, chair of the Kentucky Council of Churches, who spoke in opposition of HB 7 and the FGA last month. 

The Opportunity Solutions Project compensated its Kentucky lobbyists $33,000 in 2021. The largest amount went to McCarthy Strategic Solutions, a government relations firm in Frankfort led by former Kentucky GOP chairman and highest paid lobbyist in the state, John McCarthy.

The Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission currently lists 10 active lobbyists for the group, including Bryan Sunderland, who was deputy chief of staff to former Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin and is currently serving as FGA’s state government affairs director.

Flawed data

The FGA has long argued that the longer a person receives direct support from the government, the more difficult it becomes for that person to leave dependency and reenter the workforce, producing plenty of infographics, polls and studies that seemingly back that claim.

But the organization has been accused of cherry picking its data, by both Democratic and Republican economists. 

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities slammed the FGA in 2018 for a report that claimed the rollbacks of public benefits and work requirements in Kansas were helping families thrive, saying their analysis was “fundamentally flawed” and “highly exaggerated.”

And after circulating some polling numbers that suggested almost all Americans supported stricter working requirements, conservative economist Peter Germanis spoke up.

“Work requirements should be based on credible evidence and attention to policy details — the exact opposite of what FGA produces,” Germanis said in a Tweet. “Sad that so many politicians fall for their ‘junk science.’ ”

The same concerns can be applied to the data used in the Kentucky legislative debate that was influenced by the FGA. 

When concerns about the extent of the organization’s involvement in HB7 were brought to sponsor Meade, he said that FGA did provide some data but that most of it came from a study by the University of Kentucky. 

“The talking points about this national organization coming into Kentucky and writing our language is incorrect,” he said. “Most of this data comes from our own home state.”

But according to an analysis by Kentucky Youth Advocate (KYA), even that data wasn’t completely accurate. 

The UK study from 2016 estimated that 73,000 individuals were enrolled in Medicaid who were ineligible due to income. But those figures are based on the American Community Survey, which uses different factors to determine both income and household makeup than the Medicaid eligibility process. KYA’s analysis estimates that the number of ineligible people enrolled in Medicaid was actually less than 30,000.  

The Impact

While the FGA hasn’t had as much success in Kentucky as it has in some other states, it remains persistent. A version of HB7 was shut down by the legislature for three years in a row before it was passed this year, and advocates don’t anticipate the FGA will let up anytime soon.

“I don’t think they’re getting ready to tuck tail and run back to Florida,” Brooks said. “As we speak, they may be working in Frankfort right now. So I think we’ve got to buckle up and prepare.”

In the face of criticism, HB7 was scaled back significantly from its original version.  Penalties for fraud in the original version were reduced, reporting requirements were changed and a costly requirement to reroute cash-assistance programs through EBT cards was deleted.

While the FGA might have wanted more out of HB7, advocates and other legislators say the impact of the bill is still significant. 

“This bill creates barriers, and hurdles and trip wires and red tape for our neighbors who are trying to get food and medicine,” said Rep, Josie Raymond of Louisville. “It closes doors in the faces of the most vulnerable.”

Under the new law, the state will require SNAP recipients to report changes of income every quarter, rather than every six months, and will also implement work requirements for some Medicaid recipients. Both of these measures are similar to the language that is displayed on the FGA’s website. 

HB 7 also creates a three-strike ban that could ban people from accessing assistance for up to one year for making too many mistakes or selling benefits from their EBT card.

“The only way you will lose SNAP benefits is if you are breaking the law,” Meade said. “And the only way you lose Medicaid is if you are an able-bodied person at home with no dependents who is not willing to participate in the work requirements.”

But according to the Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, SNAP fraud is not all that common — making up less than 2% of cases. But many more people, they said, are suspected of trafficking their card based on mistakes that are easy to make while using it, such as entering the wrong pin number too many times, shopping at the same store more than once in a day or having a purchase ending in a whole-dollar amount.

The Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services also testified that the legislation would add costly layers of administrative work for a staff that is already overloaded. 

For some, the passage of HB7 and the increase in the FGA’s influence over Kentucky legislation signifies a harsh reality.

“This bill reveals a bias against the poor,” Raymond said. “By requiring more paperwork and making people jump through more hoops, we’re bringing suspicion to every interaction with the state that could empower them, rather than humiliate them.”

The post Meet the Florida think tank pushing for welfare restrictions in Kentucky appeared first on Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.

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