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Edelen Talks Northern Kentucky Examinations, Politics

The amount of time he has had to spend in Northern Kentucky is baffling to Kentucky Auditor Adam Edelen.

His office is currently reviewing the City of Covington's finances following the arrest of its finance director and has also returned scathing reports to Dayton Independent Schools, Kenton County Schools, Villa Hills, and is also looking at the spending practices and governance of the Greater Cincinnati & Northern Kentucky International Airport Board.

(SEE PREVIOUSLY: Auditor: Findings in Covington Will Be "Significant")

"We have done a significant amount of work here in Northern Kentucky and given how important this region is, particularly to the economic development of the entire state, it's troubling," Edelen said this week. "Kentucky doesn't work without a dynamic Northern Kentucky and you can't have a dynamic region with public leadership failing to meet their obligations to the public, so that's why we've been aggressive in ferreting out what we uncover."

"It's a surprise. The biggest surprise I've had as auditor," Edelen said of his frequent trips to the region.

The 39-year old Democrat sat down with The River City News on Wednesday at his mother's home in Hebron. The fast-rising star of Kentucky politics is considered in many circles to be a possible candidate for governor in 2015, though he has yet to make a decision.

If he were to run, Edelen would seek to succeed Governor Steve Beshear whom he served as Chief of Staff before running for a statewide office of his own.

"I have always wanted to be auditor," he said. "It's the one position where you get to attack the twin challenges of Kentucky. We're a poor state that doesn't have resources to invest in its people and we've been held back by a political culture that has corruption and is held back by low expectations."

"The work we do is meaningful and we, by virtue of doing our job, make government work more efficiently and more honestly. There's really no limit to our ability to fashion ourselves the future that other people get in more prosperous parts of the country."

While Edelen's mother lives in Northern Kentucky now, he was born in Meade County and grew up on a farm. After graduating from the University of Kentucky he became a civic leader in Lexington and eventually served Governor Beshear in Frankfort.

As he mulls his own run for Kentucky's top job, there are two important considerations: his 8-year old twin sons. As the boys have reached an age where they are active in sports and other activities, Edelen wants to make sure he would still be able to have an active presence in those parental duties.

"I haven't checked that box yet," he said. "It's the only thing holding us back."

One thing is certain, however. Edelen will be on the ballot in 2015, either as a gubernatorial candidate or for reelection as auditor. He will likely not be anyone's running mate for a shot at serving as lieutenant governor.

"I cannot envision a scenario in which that would work," Edelen said. "I had a difficult enough time being chief of staff. I can't imagine what the experience of being lieutenant governor would be like. You have to know yourself well enough to know what your strengths and weaknesses are. I cannot imagine someone with my energy level being a good match for anyone else."

He expects to make a decision soon.

In the meantime, his office is staying busy.

His newest target in Northern Kentucky: the Kenton County-owned CVG Airport and its board which has been the subject of a series of articles in the Cincinnati Enquirer. The reports targeted the board's spending practices for, among other things, overseas trips and post-meeting liquor.

"What we believe is that (the airport) is a critically important economic development driver for the entire region and it's been a particular victim of the consolidations and mergers in the airline industry," Edelen said. 

"What we have to identify is, is the leadership of this board and its government structure conducive to maximizing the upside of this massively important economic asset."

He called the accusations about the spending practices, "troubling", and expects to offer an analysis of the airport's form of governance. The airport serves Cincinnati, is located in Boone County, and is owned by Kenton County. All voting members of the board are appointed by the Kenton County Judge-Executive.

"In my view, given the challenges this airport faces and how critical it is to all two million people who live in this region, we have to make sure it's fully functioning at a high level."

"When I talk about the organization of this airport to people from other parts of the state, it's bizarre that Kenton County owns an airport that largely exists in Boone County and given how important it is, there's not a lot of ways to engage other communities and parts of the region in governance."

But it's not just the airport governance that is unique to Northern Kentucky. "Northern Kentucky, the way it is structured with so many municipal governments and so many special taxing districts, it's different from other parts of the state," Edelen said.

His office published a review of what it called Kentucky's $2.7 Billion Ghost Governments which highlighted those special taxing districts.

One of Edelen's trips to Northern Kentucky was the saddest day of his time in office, he said. His office discovered more than half a million dollars stolen from Dayton Independent Schools by its former superintendent Gary Rye.

"There has to be consequences to stealing from children," Edelen said. "The eyes of the entire state are going to be on the community of Dayton."

When Rye is sentenced in federal court in the spring, Edelen said his hope is that the former educator will receive the maximum sentence.

"We hope to use this investigation and his sentencing as an example of a real consequence to stealing from kids," he said.

The Rye case, "solidifies why a taxpayer watchdog has to be present in public education," Edelen said.

The lack of more watchdogs throughout the entire Northern Kentucky region may be part of the reason that Edelen returns here so frequently. 

"Given you've got such an educated population here and a high degree of public engagement, it's surprising," he said. "I don't want to paint all of Northern Kentucky with a broad picture that it is a pocket of public corruption. I think it speaks to too many governments and too little oversight and traditional media ignoring its watchdog role."

But even when corruption is uncovered, there is some sadness associated with discovering that trusted public leaders have done wrong.

"There is a great deal of sadness in this job and I think people think that when I identify someone who needs to be the target of an investigation that I take some joy in it and I don't," Edelen said. "I far prefer the audits in which people get clean bills of fiscal health."

"It's not a happy task."

One particularly sad case involved former Commissioner of Agriculture Richie Farmer, a member of the beloved 1992 University of Kentucky basketball team dubbed "The Unforgettables".

He was convicted on charges of abusing his power in office (2003-2011), including the hiring of friends that did little work and having state employees run personal errands for him. One of those tasks included the construction of a basketball court at his home.

Farmer was sentenced to twenty-seven months in federal prison this week and order to pay more than $120,000 in restitution. On Friday morning, he was sentenced to another year in Franklin Circuit Court which will run concurrently with his federal sentence.

"If you would have told me ten years ago that the first thing I would do, that the first order of business would be told hold to account my childhood hero, I would have never believed that to be the case, but you have to hold people accountable for the jobs they do," Edelen said.

Edelen was applauded in the press for the investigation in part because of the bipartisan work included Republican Commissioner of Agriculture James Comer. He quotes one editorial that called the effort "a dazzling display of bipartisanship".

Edelen also cites legislative efforts to pass bills, including a close working relationship with Republican State Senator Damon Thayer (R-Georgetown, whose district includes southern Kenton County) on a piece of legislation in 2013, as evidence of bipartisanship.

"I have a leadership style focused on doing big things and the way we try to achieve that is to establish and follow a flight pattern that speaks to the need of real reform and then engage a broad partner to effect it," he said. "You can't get anything done here relying on one political party anymore and I think that's a good thing."

In Covington, the Democrat is working closely with prosecutor Rob Sanders, a Republican who has been floated as a possible running mate for Comer, another possible 2015 gubernatorial candidate.

"I think (Sanders) has a bright future in Kentucky politics and he has earned it in Kentucky and while I can't imagine I would ever vote for him," he laughs, "he is, in terms of character and substance the kind of guy we need in public life."

"Northern Kentucky deserves more political attention from Frankfort. I think Rob's got a big future."

As Edelen weighs his future options he remains content in what he calls the best job he's ever had.

"When you do it well, it makes for good copy. There's no shortage of bad guys in Kentucky, regrettably, and we are judicious about picking where we focus," he said. "We want to do big things that have broad applicability to other areas."

In the Farmer case, "We had to demonstrate very early in my term that no matter who you are or how powerful you are or how popular you are, the law makes no distinctions between you and the rest of us," Edelen said. "We are serious about doing big things and taking on big challenges."

Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher of The River City News

Photo: Edelen in Dayton revealing that a former superintendent had stolen funds/RCN file