Former Lee administrator 'vindicated' by Kentucky appeals court

Tony Massey, who served as Lee County administrator for two years, had a 2009 ethics charge against him reversed by a Kentucky court recently. (Herald file photo)

Tony Massey, who served as Lee County administrator for two years, had a 2009 ethics charge against him reversed by a Kentucky court recently. (Herald file photo)

COLUMBIA, Tenn. — Tony Massey had moved on with his life, had distanced himself from the ethics violation that dogged him from his days as city manager of the city of Frankfort, Ky.

The charges, Massey asserted when he successfully applied for the county administrator’s position in Lee County in February of 2011, were political in nature and had little to do with him. Still, those charges were out there, available to anyone willing to do a little digging.

Massey learned at the end of August, though, that he no longer has to answer questions about a Franklin circuit judge’s 2010 ruling that Frankfort City Commissioner Kathy Carter, and by association Massey, had violated ethics statutes in the city. The Commonwealth of Kentucky Court of Appeals ruled in August, and the 30-day appeals period to that ruling ended Sept. 30, that the circuit court had ruled erroneously in determining Carter (and Massey) had violated the city of Frankfort’s code of ethics.

“To be honest with you, I’d kind of put that whole episode behind me and moved on,” Massey, who is now the city manager of Columbia, Tenn., said in a telephone interview earlier this week. “I’ve said all along the whole thing was political, and I believe the state Court of Appeals provided vindication with their ruling.

“I’ve been getting calls of congratulations since the ruling was handed down. Everyone knew this was just a matter of dirty politics. I paid the fine levied against me under protest after that (circuit court) ruling just to move on with my life. People told me after the ruling — and it turned out to be true — ‘You’ll never get justice in Frankfort.’ I ended up getting caught up in the politics at that time, but the reversal of the ruling against Ms. Carter reverses any ruling against me as well.”

The ethics rulings against Carter and Massey arose from charges that Carter, a developer who at the time renovated houses for rent in Frankfort, had sought — and received in the form of approval from Massey — preferential treatment relating to inspections on a property she had renovated. Massey’s part in the process was simply signing off on a temporary certificate of occupancy.

“What I did had nothing to do with providing preferential treatment for Ms. Carter,” Massey said. “There were people upset with her (because she had voted against longevity raises for city employees), and it turned into this big political mess.”

The city’s Ethics Board ruled against Carter (and Massey) and ordered them to pay $1,000 fines. Carter filed a petition for judicial review on Aug. 30, 2010, and Circuit Court Judge Thomas Wingate sided with the Ethics Board. Carter then filed an appeal with the Kentucky Court of Appeals.

In its ruling, the appeals court spoke harshly of the Ethics Board’s and the circuit court’s rulings. The Appeals Court stated, in part: “… There was absolutely no evidence in the record that Carter had ever asked any of the relevant parties (City Manager, Mayor, Electrical Inspectors, Building Inspectors, Contractors, etc.) for favors or benefits. On the contrary, every party denied that Carter had done so …”

Also: “Nothing in the record demonstrated that Carter intentionally used her position to obtain favorable treatment on her renovation project.” … “We believe that the circuit court erred because its opinion does not support the findings that Carter possessed the requisite level of intent as required by the city’s Code of Ethics.” … “We are persuaded that there was significant evidence in the record indicating bias against Carter.”

The court concluded: “There is no evidence in the record to support the allegations that Carter acted in her official capacity rather than as a private citizen. … Intent must be established by clear and convincing evidence rather than inferred from supposition of innuendo. The necessary threshold of evidence was never achieved in this case. Accordingly, we reverse the decision of the circuit court.”

“As you can see, that’s strong language,” Massey said. “I’ve talked with attorneys who told me that is a ‘body slam’ against the Frankfort Ethics Board and the circuit judge, who was caught up in the dirty politics.

“I’m very pleased and grateful, but not surprised by the appeals court’s ruling. I’ve said all along that I’d done nothing wrong, that I was only doing my job. This ruling confirmed that. The truth is the true vindication. This whole thing was fueled by tabloid journalism, in particular from the Frankfort State Journal. It was an episode that never should have happened.”

Massey said he wanted the people in Lee County, where he served as county administrator for slightly more than two years, to know about the appeals court ruling.

“My family and I loved our time in Lee County, and we met lots of wonderful people there,” he said. “We want to thank them for welcoming us, and we want to thank the Lee County Board of Commissioners — in particular former chairman Ed Duffy — for seeing this episode for what it was. We will be forever grateful to that board and the people of Lee County.”