State audit: Lawrence County violated ethics rules in deals with judge and his family
BY JOHN CHEVES
AUGUST 15, 2023 10:55 AM
Lawrence County Judge-Executive Phillip Carter, who sharply criticized spending at his local library last year during testimony at the state legislature, calling it wasteful, is now feeling heat about spending a little closer to home.
The state auditor’s office last week issued a report faulting the Lawrence County Fiscal Court for violating the county ethics code’s spending and nepotism rules.
For Fiscal Year 2022, the state auditor cited Lawrence County for hiring Carter’s brother, Donald, as road foreman and paying him $62,108 in salary; for paying $156,987 to a vendor, Amber Lea Contractors, for whom his son-in-law was an officer; and for paying Phillip Carter himself $1,500 for a motor on a pontoon boat at a county park.
“The Lawrence County Fiscal Court violated the county ethics code by engaging in multiple transactions with parties who are related to the county judge/executive, which is a violation of the county’s adopted ethics code,” the state auditor’s office wrote. “We recommend the fiscal court adhere to the requirements outlined in the county ethics code by refraining from hiring or engaging vendors who are related parties,” it wrote.
These transactions also violated federal grant requirements because a portion of the funds the county paid to Carter’s brother and his son-in-law’s firm came from federal money, it wrote. “The fiscal court should refrain from using vendors and employees that could potentially create conflicts of interest when using federal funds,” it wrote.
The state auditor referred the matter to the Lawrence County Ethics Commission — which is appointed by the fiscal court — for further review.
During the 2022 General Assembly, Carter was one of the county courthouse leaders championing Senate Bill 167, which tightened their political control over public library boards. Carter told legislators that the Lawrence County Public Library in Louisa charges residents too much in property taxes and wasted millions of dollars on what he described as a frivolous renovation. (The library responded by saying the project was a 5,000-square-foot addition that is now an open, light-filled children’s section.)
“It was a disaster,” Carter testified to a Senate committee. “We just need some oversight.”
Carter declined to be interviewed for this story.
In the county’s formal response to the audit, Carter said the county hired his brother as road foreman because he was “the only person who met the requirements for the position and would accept the job.”
As for the contract to his son-in-law’s firm, Carter said, his son-in-law “was not listed as an officer of the entity” on the day the county accepted the bids. And the judge-executive generally only votes on the fiscal court to break ties or to show unity on certain items, not on every routine business matter, he added.
“All future hiring and/or vendor purchases that require ethics commission approval will be submitted to the ethics commission in advance and will be in compliance with all state and federal statutes and guidelines,” Carter wrote.
By JOHN CHEVES (859) 334-0802
John Cheves is a government accountability reporter at the Lexington Herald-Leader. He joined the newspaper in 1997 and previously worked in its Washington and Frankfort bureaus and covered the courthouse beat.