FRANKFORT, Ky. – Gov. Paul Patton on Friday tearfully admitted to "unfaithfulness" with the woman who is suing him for sexual harassment. He denied using his influence to assist or damage the nursing home she operates, as she has alleged.
Patton, his voice cracking, frequently stopped to recover his emotions. He said he wanted to "apologize to the people of Kentucky for my failure as a person." He said he already apologized to first lady Judi Patton and members of their family.
Patton initially denied an affair with the woman, Tina Conner. He said he decided to recant after a sleepless night Wednesday.
"I was wrong. The denial was another mistake," Patton said.
Judi Patton did not attend the brief press conference where Patton read a statement, hugged other family members and then left without taking questions. A spokeswoman said Judi Patton was at home in Pikeville with her sisters.
Conner said she had a two-year affair with Patton and that the governor turned state inspectors loose on her western Kentucky nursing home after she ended the relationship.
Patton denied it. "Under no circumstances have I or anyone under my direct control tried to punish Mrs. Conner," he said. "I hope she will go forward with her life as I am going to try to go forward with mine."
Patton said he would fully cooperate with the Executive Branch Ethics Commission, which he predicted, "will conclude that I have done nothing wrong in my capacity as governor."
Cabinet Secretary Crit Luallen said the governor has given no thought to resignation. His term expires in December 2003 and he cannot seek a third consecutive term. Patton, a Democrat, is openly planning a challenge to Republican U.S. Sen. Jim Bunning in 2004.
Patton, 65, chairman of the National Governors Association, called political associates and supporters earlier Friday to alert them to his intentions.
Patton called his pastor Friday afternoon to admit the improper relationship.
"He has asked the church for forgiveness and he has asked God for forgiveness," said the Rev. Scott Weist, pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Pikeville, where Patton attends services. "He sure seemed to demonstrate a genuine remorse."
Weist said he prayed with the governor over the phone.
"I prayed that Paul would receive peace," he said. "I asked him had he dealt with this with God. He said he had."
Conner has alleged she met Patton for sex numerous times in 1997 through 1999. She said Patton continued to call her and said she broke off the relationship in October 2001 and found state regulators at her nursing home in Clinton two months later.
Early in the week, Patton told WHAS-TV of Louisville that he did not have sexual relations with Conner.
"Realizing the impact this would have on Judi and the rest of my family and friends, my first response was to deny my unfaithfulness to Judi," Patton said.
State records made public this week showed hundreds of calls had been made from the governor's office to Conner's telephones at her home and businesses.
On Wednesday, Patton was slapped with a lawsuit by Conner, alleging that he provided extraordinary state assistance to her and her business because of the sexual relationship they were having. The suit also alleged that when Conner broke off the relationship, Patton turned state regulators loose on her nursing home.
Patton acknowledged knowing Conner and her former husband, Seth Conner, during a news conference this week, but denied any improper conduct.
Conner's lawsuit alleges she had a relationship with Patton beginning in the fall of 1997 and ending two years later. During that time, Conner alleged Patton made "lewd" calls to her and that he made harassing calls after she ended the relationship.
The telephone records do not show who at the governor's office made the calls.
Birchtree Healthcare has filed for bankruptcy and is the subject of a foreclosure suit. The Cabinet for Health Services pulled Medicare and Medicaid payments from the nursing home in July.
Conner, 40, has said Patton's retribution has ruined her personally and financially. She is a Patton appointee to the state lottery board.
"Well of course I feel deeply saddened that so many people have been hurt and I'm glad that the governor has finally had the courage to admit what I've said all along to be true," Conner told WHAS-TV after Patton's admission. "But I feel this does not in any way justify the harm that he's caused to me, my family and my business, and especially to the residents and employees and their families at Birchtree."
Conner could not be reached for comment independently.
Patton's attorney, Sheryl Snyder, said his associates have been in contact with Conner's lawyer. Snyder refused to say negotiations are underway for a settlement, but said, "Getting the lawsuit resolved is the best way to put it behind him, personally and politically."
Patton called cabinet members to tell them Friday of his decision to make his affair public. Members of Patton's office staff were also told in a closed meeting with Luallen just before Patton's press conference, which was televised live across most of the state.
Personnel Secretary Carol Palmore, who has served in five administrations, said he hoped the indiscretion would not become Patton's legacy. "He's done so many things," Palmore said.
Palmore said her opinion of Patton was in some ways buttressed. "I thought it took more courage than anybody else I know to stand up and do what he did today," Palmore said.