Election-year review of disaster relief funds draws rebuke from Kentucky governor

Jul 20, 2023, 1:52 PM

FILE - An overturned tree sits in front of a tornado damaged home in Mayfield, Ky., Dec. 11, 2021. ...

FILE - An overturned tree sits in front of a tornado damaged home in Mayfield, Ky., Dec. 11, 2021. Kentucky's state auditor's office announced Thursday, July 20, 2023, that disaster recovery funds set up by Kentucky's Democratic governor to assist victims of tornadoes and flooding will be scrutinized by the office at the request of a Republican-led legislative panel, a decision fraught with political undertones. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

(AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)

FRANKF ORT, Ky. (AP) — Disaster recovery funds set up by Kentucky’s Democratic governor to assist victims of tornadoes and flooding will be scrutinized by the state auditor’s office at the request of a Republican-led legislative panel, a decision fraught with political undertones.

The review, announced Thursday by the state auditor’s office, comes in the midst of the state’s heated gubernatorial campaign and has the potential to raise questions about what has widely been a strength for Gov. Andy Beshear as he seeks a second term. Beshear, who was front and center after the storms hit and has been widely praised for mobilizing support for the stricken regions, called the timing of the review “grossly political.”

The auditor’s office said in its announcement that it will conduct a special examination of the Beshear administration’s “acceptance, administration and expenditure” of donated relief funds after tornadoes ravaged parts of western Kentucky in late 2021 and floods inundated the state’s Appalachian region last summer. The review will examine how the separate funds were managed during an approximately 18-month period through the end of June this year.

A special examination goes beyond examining financial information to also review things such as the management of funds. Republican state Auditor Mike Harmon is recused from the review, his office said. Harmon ran unsuccessfully for governor this year.

Soon after the announcement, Beshear said the relief funds are “fully transparent” and underwent rounds of scrutiny by the GOP-dominated Legislature and open-records requests for documentation.

“We’ll provide the documents to anybody, absolutely anyone,” he said at his weekly news conference. “Every transaction, every decision, every place a check was mailed, every place that received it.”

Beshear is being challenged by Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron in one of the nation’s most closely watched campaigns of 2023 as Beshear tries to win reelection in a GOP stronghold.

“To attack something like this for politics is really wrong,” Beshear said. “It’s paid for the funeral of every family we lost in tornadoes and in floods. It provided millions of dollars to people in their time of greatest need. It’s rebuilding hundreds of homes that otherwise wouldn’t have the funding to rebuild.”

The involvement of the auditor’s office comes a few months after state lawmakers passed a measure that Beshear signed to create a layer of legislative oversight for such relief funds.

The funds created by Beshear raised tens of millions of dollars through charitable donations from individuals and organizations around the world, according to their websites.

The decision to examine the funds’ management followed a recent letter requesting the review, the auditor’s office said. The request came from the Legislative Oversight and Investigations Committee in a letter signed by the panel’s Republican co-chairs.

In their request, the lawmakers said more than 200 checks were issued from the funds to people who either didn’t request assistance or later “stated no objective need.” That raises “serious concerns about the due diligence and general oversight” of the funds, they said. Their letter cited a state law stating that the auditor’s office shall assist the committee in “whatever manner the co-chairs deem … helpful.”

There is no set date for when the special examination will be completed, the auditor’s office said.

This isn’t the first time the Beshear administration’s handling of disaster relief funds has come under scrutiny. After the state Public Protection Cabinet issued more than $10 million in $1,000 increments from a relief fund, reports surfaced that some people unaffected by the tornadoes were mistakenly sent payments. The Lexington Herald-Leader and WPSD-TV reported on the misdirected checks.

At the time, Beshear pointed to errors in data provided to his administration as the reason any checks were sent out erroneously. Those amounts, he said, added up to a fraction of the total assistance. Kentucky Republicans pounced on the reports of misdirected payments to attack Beshear. The state GOP said it raised questions about how Beshear’s administration had been using the funds.

Beshear stoutly defended the funds’ management Thursday, saying: “Every transaction, every check, every cent is accounted for and where it’s been sent.” He has said the funds made it possible to respond quickly to help people in dire need. The donations paid funeral expenses of storm victims and helped affected homeowners, renters and farmers.

As a result, the governor said, “we were able to provide services for our people that otherwise would not have been there.”

“This is a model that we ought to be celebrating, not trying to score potential points from,” Beshear added. “And let me tell you, anybody who got one of those payments, who’s moving into one of these homes, ought to be upset that people would bring politics into this.”

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Election-year review of disaster relief funds draws rebuke from Kentucky governor