Eastern Kentucky’s high rate of political corruption must be abated before real economic change can happen

The SOAR summit hosted on Dec. 9, 2013 by Gov. Steve Beshear and Representative Hal Rogers was a success in one very particular way: it allowed eastern Kentuckians to have an open and frank conversation about the future of the region, without vitriol or judgment, in the same space as their state legislators. It was this reality that brought about 1,500 people to Pikeville, Ky., that day, and it is that reality that compelled so many to share their thoughts and ideas about Appalachia’s economic transition.

Floyd County Times photo by Ralph Davis: County Attorney Keith Bartley accused Judge-Executive “Doc” Marshall of concealing contractor bills owed by the county.

Having a voice and being given a space in which to use it is a very powerful thing, and that energy showed at the conference.

But, in the days and weeks since the conference, it’s become clear that one topic of discussion was missing from much of the day: political corruption. Eastern Kentucky’s past is littered with politicians who used their position of power for the good of themselves and their close allies. The truth of this cannot be ignored.

In fact, it’s likely one of the biggest factors that’s held us back. Eastern Kentucky’s rate of public-official indictments was nearly four times the rate in western Kentucky from 2002 to 2011, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, data that was cited in November by Bill Estep. And these issues don’t just happen during election season. Take, for example, this article from the Floyd County Times about how that county’s fiscal court pushed the county further into debt by commissioning contract work for which they did not have the money to pay.

It must be noted that not all political leaders in the region are corrupt, but stories of vote buying, nepotism and misuse of public funds are all too common in eastern Kentucky. What the region needs moving forward are political leaders who are working with the region for the good of the region, instead of for themselves and their allies. Governor Beshear, Rep. Rogers, and all the other leaders at the SOAR summit showed real gumption with their willingness to work together. The region needs much more of this if it has any chance of moving forward into a bright future. As the Lexington Herald-Leader editorial board pointed out just days after the conference: “Eastern Kentucky can’t soar while public corruption thrives.”