Kentucky lawsuit court scales seal

FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — A Kentucky law that regulates contact between legislators and lobbyists — stemming from a scandal that shook the state’s political landscape decades ago — is constitutional, a federal appeals court ruled Thursday.

A three-judge panel of the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reversed key parts of a lower court ruling that had dismantled most of the law on grounds that it was too vague to be enforced and violated lobbyists’ freedom of speech.

The appeals court disagreed, ruling the state’s ban on gifts and campaign donations from lobbyists to lawmakers is constitutional. The ban is in the Kentucky Code of Legislative Ethics.

“Kentucky’s legislature acted to protect itself and its citizens from the damaging effects of corruption,” Senior Judge Deborah L. Cook wrote. “Because these laws are closely drawn to further Kentucky’s anticorruption interest, they pass constitutional muster.”

Anthony Wilhoit, chairman of the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission, praised the appeals court ruling as a “clear win for the integrity of the legislative process.”

The law stemmed from a nearly 3-decade-old corruption investigation — known as Operation BOPTROT — that resulted in bribery charges against 22 Kentucky lawmakers and lobbyists.

Among those challenging the law was Republican state Sen. John Schickel, who has said it’s ridiculous that lawmakers could be prosecuted for accepting a bottle of water from a lobbyist. Schickel was referring to testimony from John Schaaf, executive director of the ethics commission, who said such an offering could possibly be illegal, and that lawmakers should call him before they decide to accept.

Chris Wiest, Schickel’s attorney in the case, said he was disappointed in the ruling and would likely ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review it.

In the appeals court ruling, Cook noted the “sordid history” stemming from the FBI investigation that led to the conviction of legislators, former legislators and lobbyists.

The contribution ban enacted in the wake of Operation BOPTROT “presents a significant restriction,” but it “plainly furthers Kentucky’s anticorruption interest,” Cook wrote.

“While this ban dispenses with one means a legislator has to gather funds, it leaves open others less susceptible to the same risk of corruption or its appearance, and thus survives closely drawn scrutiny,” Cook said.

Kentucky’s law banning lobbyists giving gifts to lawmakers includes “anything of value.”

A federal judge in Kentucky had ruled in 2017 that the provision was too vague.

The ruling prompted the appeal to the 6th Circuit.

The ethics commission was defended by the office of Attorney General Andy Beshear.

Beshear called the appeals court ruling “a victory for the people of Kentucky, who deserve a government that works only for them, and not for lobbyists or special interests.”

Beshear is the Democratic nominee for governor in this year’s elections in Kentucky.