Today’s blog post is a guest post from Ellen Suetholz, the coordinator of the Kentucky Public Pension Coalition. In 2017, she filed an open records request to obtain the suppressed actuarial analysis of an earlier pension bill. She was denied her request, so she appealed to the state attorney general’s office. After she won a favorable ruling from the attorney general, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin sued her in order to continue hiding the report from the public. In today’s post, Suetholz recounts her experience being sued by Gov. Bevin, as well as her experience witnessing the passion surrounding pension “reform” in Kentucky earlier this year and the eventual passing of SB 151, the pension-gutting bill. Her firsthand account reveals the truly shocking actions taken by the Kentucky legislature this year.
In terms of the lawsuit against me, the whole thing is so bizarre. I doubt many people are aware that by exercising your rights under the Kentucky open records statute you are subjecting yourself to the potential of being sued. I’ve made requests before, but generally the government complies after the state attorney general rules. Our governor, Matt Bevin, has a history since taking office of suing when the attorney general rules against him. I’m only one of many people currently being sued by the Bevin administration in Franklin Circuit Court. My case is somewhat different because I’m an attorney, and I have easier access to attorneys that can represent me. Others aren’t so fortunate and are either forced to represent themselves or pay costly legal fees.
The sad part is, I was sued at the beginning of March and the governor has done absolutely nothing to move the case along. His administration essentially sues just because they can. Through my attorney, I’ve attempted to gain some insight on the matter through discovery [seeing the evidence before trial], but the response we’ve received so far is less than helpful. In fact, we may end up in court just to request the government to comply with our requests. They are happy to allow these types of cases sit and have been called out by the judges in Franklin County for doing so. One of the most recent decisions by Franklin Circuit Judge Phillip Shepherd resulted in the defendant being awarded attorney’s fees due to Matt Bevin’s administration improperly withholding information about the investment of public money in a private company. The standard for the awarding of attorney’s fees is high, so for a judge to require our government, i.e., taxpayer money, to be used to pay for attorney fees, the behavior must be pretty egregious.
The legislative session began in early January and we all assumed a pension bill would be filed shortly thereafter, especially after the failure of the Republicans to ram through their first attempt at a pension bill via a special session last fall. January and February (mostly) passed without any legislation being filed. At the end of February, we were finally provided with Sen. Bowen’s attempt at a bill.
The first committee hearing resulted in no vote on the bill. The committee room was packed with teachers and other public employees –mostly female. The second committee meeting was again packed by mostly women, but this time the members voted and the bill passed favorably out of committee. I attended both of these meetings with two retired teachers: my Mom and Debby Murrell, who is a strong advocate for teachers across the State of Kentucky. The bill passed out of committee on a Wednesday.
A few days later, on Friday, the senate was expected to bring the matter for a vote before the full senate. Once again, teachers and other public employees packed the outside of senate chambers holding signs and mostly wearing red (in support of education). Cheers, jeers, and chants echoed throughout the Capitol building. To our dismay, after many delays, no vote was taken by the full body thanks to a few Republican holdouts in the senate. (In between the Wednesday committee vote and that Friday, I received notification on Thursday, March 8 -also International Women’s Day, ironically- I was being sued.) A huge rally was held on the capitol steps the following Monday, March 12 (also my birthday, haha). I attended with my twin daughters.
We were on high alert for the next several weeks as we awaited the Republican majority’s next move. On a somewhat quiet Holy Thursday (that was originally not scheduled as a voting day for the General Assembly) we were hit with the sewer (pension) bill. The committee meeting was hastily held in a tiny room. Video of the committee meeting (for those lucky enough to snag one of the limited seats) revealed a very hostile environment between Republicans and Democrats, who were clearly outraged. The bill was passed from beginning to end in about eight hours. We were all stunned. Protestors were locked out of the Capitol, people were prevented from hearing committee testimony on the bill, and no public comment was allowed. When we attempted to take photos of the final vote in both chambers, we were threatened by security AND the bill was presented without any actuarial analysis. Several major school districts were forced to cancel school the next day (Good Friday) because so many teachers called in sick.
The teaching profession is majority female. Women made up the majority of the protesters throughout the session. I don’t think this fact was lost on the Republican Party, and I think easily explains the abhorrent manner in which the pension bill was passed. I’ve been coming to Frankfort for many years and never have I seen so many people unite together to fight this nonsense. Many strong women leaders emerged from this fight. The groups they started are still going strong today and will continue to hold our politicians accountable for their actions. I am honored to fight with them.