Dispute over access to database pits GOP auditor and Democratic administration in Kentucky

Published 12:47 pm Wednesday, July 10, 2024

By Bruce Schreiner, The Associated Press

FRANKFORT  — Kentucky’s Republican auditor is embroiled in a dispute with Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s administration over access to a database that tracks the state’s efforts to assist its most vulnerable citizens.

In a letter dated Tuesday, Auditor Allison Ball demanded that full access to the database be provided to the Commonwealth Office of the Ombudsman, a government watchdog tasked with monitoring the state Cabinet for Health and Family Services. The conflict surfaced just days after the ombudsman’s office was shifted to the auditor’s office as a result of legislation passed by the state’s GOP-dominated legislature. The letter was sent to the governor and Health and Family Services Secretary Eric Friedlander.

The dispute appears to boil down to conflicting interpretations of applicable law.

Ball wrote that state and federal law require the cabinet to give the ombudsman “full, direct and real-time access” to the database, adding such access is essential for the ombudsman’s office to “fully do its job.”

Pushing back, Beshear’s administration said Tuesday that current state law prohibits full access to the system by the auditor’s office.

“The cabinet supports changing the applicable laws in the next (legislative) session to provide full access,” the agency said in a statement. “In the meantime, we have been working with the auditor’s office to provide them with the maximum access allowed under the current law, but they have refused.”

Asked if it will take the dispute to court, Ball’s office replied: “We will continue to operate through any channel necessary to get that access.”

The cabinet is a massive agency that administers an array of programs and services meant to protect and promote the health and well-being of Kentuckians. The ombudsman’s office previously was attached to the cabinet before lawmakers transferred it to the auditor’s office, with the changeover taking effect last week. Supporters said the shift would help guarantee independent oversight of the cabinet. Access to the database was available to the ombudsman staff prior to the switchover, Ball said.

The governor allowed the 2023 legislation to become law without his signature.

The database at the center of the dispute contains information pertinent to ensuring that Kentucky’s most vulnerable citizens receive needed government services, the auditor’s office said. That includes information regarding the cabinet’s handling of child abuse and neglect allegations and investigations.

For example, if the ombudsman wanted to do a systemic investigation of the cabinet’s response time to allegations of infant abuse and neglect, that information would be in database, the auditor’s office said.

Jonathan Grate, who has extensive experience in state government, was appointed as ombudsman by Ball, who is in her first year as auditor after serving two terms as state treasurer. Grate signed Ball’s letter demanding full database access.

Republican state Sen. Stephen Meredith, who was lead sponsor of the 2023 bill, on Tuesday praised Ball’s efforts “to uphold the law and advocate for transparency and accountability within our state government.” Ball’s demand is “critical to ensure that Kentucky’s most vulnerable populations receive the services they deserve,” Meredith said in a statement.

Meredith said the bill’s “clear intent” was for the ombudsman’s office to have access to the database, calling it a “common-sense reform” to end “the practice of the cabinet investigating itself.”

Ball’s letter claimed that the cabinet’s resistance to providing full access to the database didn’t surface until after this year’s legislative session ended in mid-April.