HAZARD — The Perry County Ethics Commission has ruled that Sheriff Les Burgett was in violation of the local ethics code for employing his wife in the sheriff’s office over the past few years.
This same issue was addressed by a previously empaneled commission in 2009 which found no fault with Lenora Burgett’s employment in the sheriff’s office. That ruling was made despite a local ordinance prohibiting the employment of an elected official’s immediate family in a full time or permanent part time position within county government.
According to payroll records obtained by the Herald last month that date back to 2009, Burgett’s employment has been on a part time basis. In 2010 she averaged 28 hours per week at a rate of more than $15 per hour, though she received no benefits. She has averaged 23 hours per week so far in 2011, and did not log any hours during the month of July in either year.
Because she did not log any hours in July, the previous commission opined that she was neither a full time or permanent part time employee, and therefore not in violation of the ethics code.
That ruling, however, has been overturned, according to minutes of the September 28 meeting of the ethics commission obtained by the Herald via an open records request. According to those minutes, all members of the present commission “were in agreement that Mrs. Lenore (sic) Burgett was in violation” of the ethics code.
“The commission ruled that she was in violation and that both the County and Commonwealth Attorney’s offices be notified,” the minutes read.
Sheriff Burgett told the Herald that he was notified of the commission’s ruling by letter, though he was not invited to the meeting. He added that considering a previous commission had already ruled on the issue, he believes that politics is playing a role in the continued scrutiny of his wife’s employment.
“I believe that with all my heart, because I’ve tried to do everything I can do, everything they’ve asked me,” he said.
But in the meantime, he said his wife will continue to work in the sheriff’s office, but on a voluntary basis as his office prepares for the upcoming tax season.
“She’ll still be working,” he said. “She works three days a week. She wants to work because we’re getting ready for tax season, but she’s going to work without pay. She’s going to volunteer until we can get this worked out.”
Burgett said his wife’s working in the sheriff’s office is not about money, but about having an adequate number of qualified employees to ensure the county’s taxes are collected.
“We’re so covered up for four or five months there, it’s just overwhelming,” he said.
He added that since the previous commission voted to allow his wife to continue working in the sheriff’s office he has continued to allow her hours on a part time basis as was recommended. But the ordinance governing nepotism in county offices is unclear and he hopes to go back to the ethics commission to determine if she could continue working as a seasonal employee.
“I want to do it right, I want to it legally, I want to do it fair,” he added. “And that’s what I’m searching for, is some answer where I can do this right.”
Sheriff Burgett does have some recourse available, according to the ethics code, as he can appeal the commission’s decision to the Perry County Circuit Court. He did not say, however, whether or not that will be an option moving forward.