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THE NATION

Kentucky Governor Admits 'Inappropriate' Relationship

Politics: Woman accuses state's leader of sexual harassment. He denies giving her political favors and then later seeking regulatory revenge.

September 21, 2002|ERIC SLATER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

After two days of denial and evasion, a highly emotional Kentucky Gov. Paul E. Patton admitted Friday to an "inappropriate personal relationship" with a businesswoman and donor who is suing him for sexual harassment.

But at a brief news conference at the Capitol in Frankfort, Patton dismissed the woman's claim that he gave her business ventures preferential treatment and then, after she broke off the relationship, sabotaged them with unfair scrutiny.

"It's not easy for me to discuss private failures in a public forum, but I do so because I want to be honest with the people of Kentucky and try to earn their trust and respect again," he said.

"I have now apologized to the people of Kentucky and asked for your forgiveness. I do believe that now I am on the right path."

Patton earlier this week stood with his wife of 25 years, Judi, and declared that he had not had an affair with 40-year-old Tina Conner. He canceled his planned appearances Friday and scheduled the briefing after a Kentucky newspaper reported that more than 440 calls had been made from the governor's office to several of Conner's phone numbers from late 1997 to early this summer.

The 65-year-old Democrat acknowledged that his earlier statement was not true. "I am also sorry that I initially denied the failure in my personal life," he said. "My first response was to deny my unfaithfulness to Judi."

Patton was considering challenging Republican Sen. Jim Bunning, a Hall of Famer and former major league baseball pitcher, in 2004, according to political analysts. Although it is unclear whether the scandal might influence his decision to run, it is almost certain that if he does, he will have a more difficult time unseating an incumbent who, just days ago, was viewed as particularly vulnerable.

"That was probably one of the best shots Democrats had of picking up a Senate seat in 2004," said Charlie Cook, publisher of the Washington, D.C.-based Cook Political Report.

Conner, a longtime Democratic donor and the owner of a nursing home and a construction company in rural western Kentucky, filed the harassment suit Wednesday. It alleged that Patton had provided her businesses with regulatory favors, which she did not specify, then sought regulatory revenge after she ended a relationship that included trysts in his Capitol office and in Lexington and Louisville hotels.

Patton, chairman of the National Governors Assn., appointed Conner to two state boards: the Institute for Aging in 1996--before their affair began--and the state Lottery Board in 2000. (He also appointed her then-husband, Seth Conner, from whom she was divorced this summer, to the Kentucky Agriculture Development Board.)

Additionally, Tina Conner served as a sort of liaison between the governor's office and western Kentucky interests.

Before Patton's news conference, representatives of the governor said the phone calls, which were first reported by the Louisville Courier-Journal, were run-of-the-mill political calls between Capitol officials and a far-flung operative.

In an interview Friday, Conner's attorney agreed that some of the calls were indeed political calls. Others were mutually acceptable personal calls, said Fred Radolovich. But still others were calls that Conner considered unwelcome after she ended the affair in 1999. "We have this two-year stalking telephone stuff," Radolovich said.

In her suit, Conner alleges that Patton fondled her at a 1997 political fund-raiser and invited her to join him in her office. She did, she says, and a two-year affair ensued.

When the relationship ended, Radolovich said, the calls did not.

"Some of them may have been self-serving," Radolovich said, noting that Conner did not hang up or refuse to take some of Patton's calls, even after she had ended their affair. "You don't want your business to go under."

In October 2001, Conner finally convinced Patton that the relationship was over, Radolovich said. Two months later, Conner alleges in her suit, she became "the target of harassment, retaliation and intimidation by the regulatory agencies of the executive branch of state government, which [Patton] controlled."

In December 2001, inspectors from the state Cabinet for Health Services slapped Conner's Birchtree Healthcare nursing home with $156,000 in fines and handed the owner a 163-page report listing deficiencies that needed to be addressed. Just 10 months prior, inspectors had found few problems at the same facility.

At another inspection in April, the inspectors once again found numerous problems at the 112-bed facility, prompting Medicare and Medicaid to halt payments.

The state moved 103 of the patients to other facilities, leaving only nine, all of whom paid for their care with personal funds. Earlier this month, Birchtree filed for bankruptcy protection.

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