Thursday, October 10, 2002

Legal fight grows in Patton suit

Conner: Denial of relationship was 'defaming'

By Mark R. Chellgren
The Associated Press

FRANKFORT - The legal wrangling over a western Kentucky nursing home owner's allegations that her sexual relationship with Gov. Paul Patton won her preference and punishment began in earnest Wednesday.

An attorney for Tina Conner filed an amended complaint that Mr. Patton initially lied about his relationship with her, which had the effect of “degrading, defaming and belittling” her.

Mr. Patton's attorneys asked that two portions of Ms. Conner's original complaint be dismissed and the entire case be moved to Franklin County.

Mr. Patton's side argued that Ms. Conner cannot be granted damages for retaliation and harassment because she has never been a state employee.

Ms. Conner said she carried on a two-year sexual relationship with Mr. Patton, from 1997 to 1999, meeting Mr. Patton at hotels in Louisville and Lexington and one time in his Capitol office. She said Mr. Patton continued to call her until she cut off contact with him in October 2001.

During their relationship, Ms. Conner claims she got preferential treatment for her nursing home, Birchtree Healthcare in Clinton. Outside of court, she says she also got tips when state regulators were coming for what were supposed to be surprise inspections.

After she stopped talking to him, Ms. Conner claims that regulators were turned loose on her nursing home. The Cabinet for Health Services found serious safety violations in a December 2001 inspection and subsequently Birchtree lost Medicare and Medicaid funding and most of its residents. It has since filed for bankruptcy protection and has been sued for foreclosure by a local bank.

Mr. Patton initially denied a relationship with Ms. Conner but recanted during a tearful news conference in late September. Mr. Patton has maintained that she never got special treatment or punishment because of the relationship.

The Executive Branch Ethics Commission, the FBI and the attorney general's office have all undertaken investigations.

“I think that the FBI and the attorney general will both conclude that there's been no criminal actions on our behalf,” Mr. Patton said Wednesday.

The ethics commission, which has a more subjective perspective, should reach the same conclusion, Mr. Patton said.

“I'm very confident that we have acted in the highest ethical manner based on the standards that have been established in the governor's office by my predecessors. I would hope that that would be the conclusion that the ethics commission comes to.”

Ms. Conner was Mr. Patton's political contact in Hickman County, a long if somewhat murky tradition of an unofficial position that can be a source of political patronage and influence.

Also Wednesday, the Cabinet for Health Services released anonymous letters dated from 1998 that hinted that Birchtree was tipped off by state officials about inspections.

Cabinet spokesman Gil Lawson said reports from inspectors indicate no special treatment was accorded Birchtree. The anonymous allegations could not be substantiated.

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