FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — Kentucky’s outgoing lieutenant governor on Thursday sued Gov. Matt Bevin in an effort to win reinstatement of two staff members dismissed from her office by Bevin’s administration.
The dispute threatens to complicate the Republican governor’s efforts to win a second term in a state tilting heavily toward the GOP. Bevin, who has cultivated close ties with President Donald Trump, faces a tough challenge in November from state Attorney General Andy Beshear, a Democrat and son of a former governor.
The legal action intensifies a feud between Lt. Gov. Jenean Hampton and Bevin’s administration over who wields authority to remove staffers in the lieutenant governor’s office. Bevin dropped Hampton, a fellow Republican, from his reelection ticket early this year.
Hampton’s lawsuit seeks a court order declaring that the lieutenant governor, as a constitutionally elected official, is empowered under law to hire and fire staff members in the office. A hearing is set next week in Franklin County Circuit Court in Kentucky’s capital city.
Her suit names Bevin and the state Personnel Cabinet as defendants. It claims Hampton’s “rights as the lieutenant governor have been violated, and are being violated” by the defendants.
In a statement, Bevin spokeswoman Elizabeth Kuhn said the state Personnel Board is reviewing the dismissals of the two Hampton aides. Kuhn said it’s “inappropriate for a lawsuit to be filed before the board issues its decision. We will move for immediate dismissal of the complaint.”
The legal action stems from the terminations of Steve Knipper, Hampton’s chief of staff, and Adrienne Southworth, her deputy chief of staff. Hampton never consented to the firings.
The suit says the offices of governor and lieutenant governor are “separate and distinct offices.” It says the lieutenant governor is the “proper appointing authority” for employees of the lieutenant governor’s office, “without interference from the governor or any other person.” It said terminations without her consent are “legally ineffective.”
Immediately after learning of Knipper’s termination in late January, Hampton reappointed him as her chief of staff, but the Personnel Cabinet “refused to take action” on the reappointment, it said.
When Southworth was let go in the spring, Hampton demanded that the aide be reinstated immediately, but there was no response from Bevin administration officials, the suit said.
After Southworth’s dismissal, Hampton went on Twitter to ask for prayers in her fight against “dark forces,” putting the feud in public view.
As Bevin’s running mate in 2015, Hampton became a political trailblazer as the first black person elected to statewide office in Kentucky. Since then, she has had a small role in Bevin’s administration, traveling the state to meet with school groups while promoting entrepreneurship and science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education for girls.
Hampton had lobbied Bevin for a spot on this year’s ticket, telling the Bowling Green Daily News she felt she had done “a fantastic job.” Bevin has called Hampton “an extraordinary lieutenant governor” and “a dear and personal friend,” but she has said little publicly about her removal from the ticket. Last week, Hampton told the Lexington Herald-Leader that she never talked with Bevin about the dismissals. In doing so, she challenged Bevin’s comments in June in which he tried to play down a feud between himself and Hampton.
The dispute with Hampton is just the latest for the state’s combative governor.
Bevin’s approval ratings have slumped since his failed attempt to change the state’s struggling public pension systems. A pension law signed by Bevin was struck down by Kentucky’s Supreme Court on procedural grounds. Beshear filed the lawsuit that led to the ruling.
Bevin also is trying to overcome his self-inflicted political wounds from feuding with public education groups who said the pension changes would discourage people from entering the profession. Thousands of teachers and other public workers swarmed the state Capitol in Frankfort last year to oppose the pension plan, closing schools in more than 30 districts statewide.
Despite overwhelming Republican majorities in both chambers of the Legislature, the governor has had spats with members of his own party while struggling to pass a comprehensive fix for the pension system. He overcame a tougher-than-expected primary challenge from a fellow Republican in May and now squares off against his fierce rival, who is the son of Bevin’s predecessor, former Gov. Steve Beshear.