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Former Head of Kentucky Unemployment Office Dead at 39

Muncie McNamara testifying before the Kentucky state legislature on July 30, 2020.
Jared Bennett
Muncie McNamara testifying before the Kentucky state legislature on July 30, 2020.

Muncie McNamara, an attorney and former executive director of Kentucky’s Office of Unemployment Insurance in the early months of the pandemic, was found dead over the weekend at age 39.

An obituary posted Monday night says McNamara died “after a battle with chronic depression.” Bardstown police chief Kim Kraezig told WDRB the cause of death appears to be self-inflicted.

McNamara died in Bardstown, where he lived with his wife Audrey Haydon and their two daughters.

According to the obituary, McNamara was a big Washington Nationals fan and loving father who had recently enjoyed introducing his daughter to his own favorite childhood books during a nightly bedtime ritual. The obituary also says McNamara’s time at home with his family after the birth of his youngest daughter in August was “a precious gift they will all treasure forever.”

McNamara was born in St. Louis, Missouri. He attended law school in Washington D.C. where he met Haydon, and the two moved to Kentucky in 2011.

McNamara was hired by Gov. Andy Beshear’s administration in January 2020 to run the Office of Unemployment Insurance.

McNamara took over the unemployment office when it had been depleted and left unprepared for the crush of claims to come. He was on the job for just under three months when the coronavirus struck and kicked off an unemployment crisis that would leave many thousands of people struggling without income.

Behind the scenes, McNamara had raised concerns about appointments to the unemployment insurance commission and other moves taken by the administration during the early days of the unemployment crisis. McNamara was quietly fired the first week of May, a week that brought over 69,000 new unemployment insurance claims.

He challenged his firing, arguing to the Kentucky Personnel Board that he was fired because of a medical condition, and for calling attention to ethical concerns within the unemployment insurance office.

Later that year, McNamara testified before the Kentucky legislature’s Joint Committee on Economic Development and Workforce Investment, where he told lawmakers about decisions made by his overseers in the Beshear administration. McNamara claimed the decisions contributed to monthslong delays and violated federal rules in the process.

Many of McNamara’s concerns were borne out in a report from the Kentucky Public Auditor's office in February.

Robyn Smith represented McNamara during his personnel dispute and has years of experience practicing law inside the unemployment insurance system.

Smith said McNamara was a talented administrative lawyer with an eye for processes, standards and procedures. Smith said that’s what McNamara was trying to bring to the unemployment office when he was fired.

“He wanted to have everything to where somebody coming in (to the unemployment office) could know what the rules were, and expect to be treated the same as the person who had been there right before them,” Smith said, while adding that uniformity was lacking in the unemployment system prior to McNamara’s tenure.

Beyond that, Smith said McNamara was a “likeable guy” who respected and cared for the staff of the unemployment office during his time there. 

Even as his personnel dispute dragged on, Smith said McNamara wanted to talk to the public and the General Assembly about the dedicated staff of the unemployment office. “He wanted to make sure that whatever came out of this, that the staff wasn’t vilified.”

McNamara’s death comes as the Kentucky legal community, like much of the country, is struggling with despair and mental health issues.

The President of the Kentucky State Bar Association wrote to its 19,000 members in January urging Kentucky lawyers to take care of their well being and look out for each other after four members committed suicide over the holiday season.

McNamara is the third lawyer Smith knew personally who has died by apparent suicide since Christmas. “The one thing that people I know all have in common is how much they do care and caring is what makes them vulnerable,” Smith said.

“When you’re an attorney you carry on your shoulders everybody’s problems and when Muncie was executive director, for example, he carried the thousands, tens of thousands of Kentucky working families problems that he was responsible for solving.”

The suicide prevention hotline is available 24/7 at 1-800-273-TALK or through an online chat.

Jared Bennett is an investigative reporter and deputy editor for LPM. Email Jared at jbennett@lpm.org.