Kentucky Attorney General-elect Russell Coleman speaking on election night, Nov 7, 2023 in Louisville. (Kentucky Lantern photo by Mathew Mueller)
FRANKFORT — Kentucky’s next attorney general, Republican Russell Coleman, said Tuesday that combating public corruption will be one of his priorities but declined to speak specifically about London Mayor Randall Weddle’s use of “straw donors” to make excessive contributions to Gov. Andy Beshear’s campaign and the Kentucky Democratic Party.
Flanked by his transition team and speaking to media in the Capitol Rotunda, Coleman said that prosecuting public corruption is one of the attorney general’s “core responsibilities” and that “for too long” the state “has had to rely” on federal authorities to investigate corruption involving government officials.
Coleman said his other top priorities would be:
- “Tackling the poison” flowing in from our “porous southwest border” that contributed to the drug overdose deaths of more than 2,100 Kentuckians last year.
- Addressing violence, particularly in Louisville.
- Combating child exploitation and sex abuse.
- “Leaning in on how we support our county and commonwealth’s attorneys.”
Coleman, who served as U.S. attorney in Kentucky’s Western District under then President Donald Trump, said he reached out to newly elected Jefferson County Commonwealth’s Attorney Gerina D. Whethers the day after the Nov. 7 election. “We’re looking forward to sitting down and talking about how the attorney general will play a role in (violence) reduction in Louisville. I don’t know what that looks like yet.”
Coleman called Kentucky’s largest city “a very dangerous place, particularly in some neighborhoods” and said that violent crime also is significantly up in rural Kentucky.
Asked by the Lantern for a response, Whethers’ office emailed a statement: “The Jefferson County Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office is focused on building a foundation that fosters trust, transparency, and the well-being of the citizens of Jefferson County, which has always been a primary focus of the Whethers administration. The Commonwealth’s Attorney Office collaborates with multiple agencies, including law enforcement. We aim to ensure safer communities and victims and their families receive justice.”
As attorney general, Coleman will oversee a commission that’s responsible for steering spending from Kentucky’s legal settlements with drug companies whose practices fueled the opioid epidemic.
The commission is considering putting $42 million into research on an illegal psychedelic plant, ibogaine, that is reputed to ease opioid withdrawal and help opioid users overcome addiction.
Coleman said he found ibogaine’s possibilities “fascinating” and that he planned to “take a hard look” at whether it would be a smart use for $42 million, which he called “a lot of money.”
Praising Kentucky’s progress on expanding access to drug treatment, Coleman said he wants to strengthen prevention, which he said is now piecemeal.
“We need a statewide standard data-based prevention effort,” Coleman said. Kentucky lost 2,135 lives to overdose in 2022.
Coleman said he has reached out to the newly reelected Beshear and members of his administration and looks forward to “pragmatic” cooperation. “There is no ‘R’ and ‘D’ when it comes to protecting our families” from crime.
Coleman also said he plans to push back “on an agenda coming out of Washington, D.C., that just doesn’t comport with common sense or the views of our founders.”
Last week, the Lantern reported that the Registry of Election Finance has opened a civil investigation into $202,000 in political contributions made on a credit card belonging to Weddle and his wife. The contributions had been made in the names of Weddle family members, friends and associates who had never before been political donors. The Beshear campaign and Kentucky Democratic Party later returned the $202,000. State and federal laws limit how much an individual can give to a candidate or party and make it illegal to evade the limits by giving through “straw donors.”
Attorney General Daniel Cameron was precluded by an ethics commission ruling from investigating Weddle’s contributions to Beshear as long as he was Beshear’s opponent in the race for governor. Cameron’s office referred the matter to the FBI, which has not said if it is investigating.
Coleman said he was aware of the Weddle case “from afar” but had nothing to say about it specifically.
Coleman announced two hires. Rob Duncan, former U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Kentucky, will serve as deputy attorney general.
Former state Sen. Wil Schroder will serve as the office’s senior counsel, including acting as a liaison to the legislature.
Coleman also recognized Andrew McNeill, an adviser to former Republican Govs. Matt Bevin and Ernie Fletcher, who is senior adviser to the transition but will not be serving in the Coleman administration.
Coleman and other constitutional officers will take office Jan. 1.
The governor and lieutenant governor will be inaugurated on Dec. 12.
This story has been updated with a statement from Jefferson County Commonwealth’s Attorney Gerina D. Whethers.
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