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Bevin's final actions in office reverberating in race for Kentucky governor

This photo is a screenshot of a televised debate between Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear and Attorney General Daniel Cameron.
WCPO Cincinnati
Gov. Andy Beshear and Attorney General Daniel Cameron sparred on the debate stage at Northern Kentucky University.

It’s common for governors to issue pardons on their way out of office. But former Kentucky Republican Gov. Matt Bevin sent shock waves through the state when he pardoned people convicted of murder, child sexual abuse, and other violent crimes — including the son of a political donor.

The fallout from Bevin’s final actions are still being felt in this year’s race for governor in the commonwealth.

The impact of Bevin's actions on the 2023 election

Republican Attorney General Daniel Cameron paints himself as the “law and order” candidate and incumbent Governor Andy Beshear as the so-called “catch and release” candidate.

“In 2020, when he was locking down our schools, he was unlocking our jails," Cameron said of Beshear during a campaign appearance last month in Butler County.

Beshear granted early releases to some prisoners during the pandemicto slow the spread of COVID-19 in crowded prisons and jails. He prioritized the most vulnerable to the virus and those within six months finishing their sentences for non-violent and non-sexual felonies.

Cameron accused Beshear of not properly vetting the pardons, saying it displayed a lack of judgment.

"He let out roughly 2,000 criminals and a third of those re-committed felony offenses here in Kentucky, making our communities less safe and law enforcement's job that much harder," Cameron said.

Beshear defends the actions during a recent stop in Bowling Green, pointing out that leaders across the country did the same thing to try and slow the spread of the virus in crowded facilities.

"I followed the lead of President Trump, as well as 22 others governors, Democrat and Republican," Beshear said. "I think there’s a big difference between letting low-level, non-violent offenders out a little early in a pandemic and the pardons where Matt Bevin let rapists and murders walk free, and Daniel Cameron did absolutely nothing about it."

Beshear’s predecessor, Republican Matt Bevin, let out people convicted of far more serious crimes on his way out of office, including a man convicted of homicide whose family held a political fundraiser for the then-governor.

He was later convicted of the same crime in federal court.

Kenton County Commonwealth’s Attorney Rob Sanders was one of Bevin’s biggest supporters—until the pardons.

“What Gov. Bevin did was nothing more than a temper tantrum after he lost his re-election," Sanders told WKU Public Radio.

Early on in his administration, Cameron hired Bevin’s lawyers, Steve Pitt and Chad Meredith, who signed off on those controversial pardons.

Cameron said he would appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Bevin’s pardons, but that never happened.

Instead, he asked the FBI to look into it.

“You know, when we made the decision to refer it to the FBI, it was roundly praised," Cameron said. "It was praised by Democrats, including (current U.S. Rep.) Morgan McGarvey, who asked us to refer it to the FBI.”

That was nearly three years ago, and Cameron now says he has no knowledge of where the case stands.

Pitt and Meredith ended up leaving Cameron’s administration.

Sanders accuses Beshear of doing the same thing as his predecessor: not consulting with law enforcement, prosecutors, or victims before granting early release during the pandemic.

He said the pardon controversy should deeply resonate with voters on Nov. 7.

“Voters care about public safety," Sanders said. "Any time you have governors pardoning or commuting the sentences of convicted felons, I think it’s a cause for concern and rightly so."

However, Western Kentucky University political science professor Scott Lasley says pardons won’t be the defining issue during this year’s race.

“Most voters already know who they’re going to vote for and almost nothing is going to change that, so you’re talking to a relatively small percentage of voters," Lasley said. "I’m a little skeptical in this particular case if it will make much difference.”

Advocates who defend the pardon power say it's an important way to correct injustices. Pardons have been issued in cases where violent crimes were committed against abusive partners or where drug offenders have gone on to become productive members of society.

Still, after recent controversies over Kentucky's pardon power, prosecutor Rob Sanders said voters will be more watchful of how a governor makes clemency decisions.

“Given the actions of the past two governors, it’s time we re-examine how we issue pardons and maybe look at other states and see if other states have safeguards in place to reign in the gubernatorial power of the pardon," Sanders said. "I don’t know that I want to see it eliminated entirely. I think there’s a time and a place for a pardon.”

After Bevin’s pardons, lawmakers proposed bills to reform the power so governors wouldn’t be allowed to issue pardons on their way out of office. The proposals never made it out of the legislature.

Copyright 2023 WKU Public Radio. To see more, visit WKU Public Radio.

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