Friday, April 18, 2003

Fletcher tells court about ex-running mate

By Charles Wolfe
The Associated Press

FRANKFORT - Republican gubernatorial candidate Ernie Fletcher said on a witness stand Thursday that he did not personally verify that former running mate Hunter Bates met residency requirements to be lieutenant governor.

Fletcher said he left that to others, mostly to Bates himself, who consulted with attorneys and became convinced of his own eligibility.

"I felt and still feel comfortable with the opinion he gave and I relied on," Fletcher, the 6th District congressman, said in just over an hour of testimony in Franklin County Circuit Court.

Bates, a native of Whitley County and protege of U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, was declared ineligible last month. A judge in Oldham County declared that Bates had resided for most of the last six years in Alexandria, Va., working first for a private law firm in Washington, then joining McConnell's staff.

The Kentucky Constitution requires candidates for governor and lieutenant governor to be citizens and residents of the state for six years prior to election.

Because the candidates also run as a slate, Franklin County Circuit Judge William L. Graham must now decide whether Fletcher also was rendered ineligible when Bates was disqualified.

That's the contention of a rival slate, Steve Nunn and Bob Heleringer. Fletcher has since selected Steve Pence, a former federal prosecutor, to replace Bates on the ticket.

Graham, who is expected to make a ruling no later than Monday, seemed taken aback by Fletcher's testimony.

"I'm sort of surprised to hear him say all this research was done by Hunter Bates," the judge said after Fletcher left the courtroom.

During his testimony, Fletcher defended himself on that point. He noted that Bates, a Harvard law graduate, also served a stint as counsel to the Senate Rules Committee. "What better legal advice could I get than someone who practices governmental law?" Fletcher said.

Lawyers for Fletcher, fearing a political bonanza for his opponents - Nunn, Rebecca Jackson and Virgil Moore - tried to prevent his having to testify.

"There's a huge political advantage to get your opponent on the stand," said one of the attorneys, Jason Underwood.

Another attorney, Brad Cowgill, warned the judge that he was "being invited on a fishing expedition" in the hope of getting Fletcher to "impugn his own integrity."

"I always take exception to the court being used for political inflammation," Graham said.

But under the circumstances, Graham said, "it is fair play to allow the Nunn-Heleringer campaign to inquire" about whether Fletcher is bona fide.

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