FRANKFORT, Ky. – For the past few months, Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher (search) has been doing just about everything he can to fend off a criminal investigation into alleged political hiring-and-firing by his administration. But the investigation has steamed on, and appears to be getting closer to Fletcher himself.
Eleven current or former members of his administration have been indicted so far in the probe by Kentucky's attorney general.
And while there has been little or no evidence to publicly connect the governor to any wrongdoing, his efforts to thwart the investigation — including his refusal to testify and his issuing of a blanket pardon to anyone charged — appear to have done grave damage to him politically.
The first-term governor's approval ratings have sunk, and he has become isolated from other members of the GOP.
"You've got to wonder at what point it becomes a death spiral," said Michael Baranowski (search), a political science professor at Northern Kentucky University.
Prosecutors have accused Fletcher's administration of handing out jobs on the basis of political affiliation, in violation of a 1960 Kentucky civil service law.
According to court records: A transportation department inspector was fired for supporting Fletcher's Democratic opponent in the last election. A former Democratic lawmaker was supposedly given a highway job for supporting Fletcher. And the nephew of a GOP official was hired instead of someone more qualified.
Attorney General Greg Stumbo (search), a Democrat, opened the investigation in May after a veteran transportation employee showed up on his doorstep with mounds of e-mails and documents.
At first, the governor said mistakes may have been made in hiring. But then he adopted an attack strategy, dismissing the investigation as a political witch hunt conducted by an attorney general intent on winning Fletcher's job.
Then, as the indictments crept closer to Fletcher, the governor and his lawyers criticized the civil service law as antiquated and vague, attacked the grand jury as a pawn of prosecutors, and dismissed the crimes alleged — most of them misdemeanors punishable by a year or less in jail — as tantamount to fishing out of season.
In late August, Fletcher announced a pardon of the first nine people indicted — and anyone else who might be charged, not including himself.
"I cannot allow state government to continue to be consumed by this game of political `gotcha,' paralyzing our ability to serve you, the people of Kentucky," Fletcher, a 52-year-old former congressman and Kentucky's first Republican governor in three decades, said in a televised, statewide address from the Capitol Rotunda.
(One of those pardoned was later indicted again. And the question of whether the governor can pardon people before they have even been charged is a matter of legal dispute.)
The governor also dismissed nine of his appointees, including some of those indicted, and blamed any missteps on "overeager young managers" and officials "too eager to please." He said he never knowingly violated any law as governor.
The grand jury has subpoenaed virtually all of Fletcher's inner circle and indicted his closest associate and former chief of staff, Daniel Groves (search).
The governor himself was subpoenaed a day after announcing the pardons. He went before the grand jury in August but refused to answer questions. Also, Fletcher's lawyers have prevented prosecutors from gaining access to some of his e-mail.
So far, no one has been convicted or pleaded guilty. Stumbo, in his own defense, has said he was duty-bound to investigate the allegations. While not exactly ruling out a run for governor, he has said he has no plans to seek the office in 2007, when Fletcher plans to run for re-election.
A poll last month put Fletcher's job-disapproval rating at a dangerously high 54 percent. Another poll showed only 17 percent supported him for another term.
"When you get a thousand cuts, it can kill you," said Joe Gershtenson (search), director of the Center for Kentucky History and Politics at Eastern Kentucky University.
Fletcher has even suffered within his own party. The state GOP rejected his request to fire chairman Darrell Brock, who was among those indicted. And the governor was snubbed by Sen. Mitch McConnell, considered the real leader of the party in Kentucky.
"A lot of people in the party see him as a liability now," Baranowski said.
Democrats have been relatively quiet about Fletcher's troubles. Baranowski said that might be good approach: "At some point, if someone is bludgeoning himself to death, sometimes the best strategy is to stand back and let him do it."