FBI probes Matt Bevin’s controversial last-minute pardons amid allegations of “political favoritism”

Top Kentucky Democrat welcomes probe: We have to find out if ex-governor "abused and possibly sold" pardons

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published December 24, 2019 1:30PM (EST)

Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (AP/Bryan Woolston)
Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin (AP/Bryan Woolston)

The FBI is investigating a torrent of pardons issued by former Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin after he lost his re-election bid.

An FBI agent reached out to state Rep. Chris Harris, a Democrat, last week about a flurry of hundreds of pardons issued by the former Republican governor in his final weeks in office, The Louisville Courier-Journal reports.

"The impression I got is that there was an investigation ramping up,” Harris told the outlet. "It may be a formal investigation or it may not be a formal investigation. It may be just calling to see if there’s anything there to warrant a full investigation. ... I can tell you, at least, there are questions being asked.”

Bevin pardoned more than 650 people after narrowly losing his re-election bid to Democrat Andy Beshear, who was inaugurated on Dec. 10. Several of Bevin's pardons have drawn condemnation from lawmakers and law enforcement.

One of the people pardoned by Bevin was Patrick Baker, who served just two years of a 19-year sentence for reckless homicide and robbery. Baker had claimed that he was framed by police in the killing but former state police commissioner Rick Sanders conducted an investigation and told Bevin that “Baker was, in fact, guilty in that case,” according to the Courier-Journal.

The Courier-Journal reported that Baker’s brother held a campaign fundraiser at his home for Bevin last year that raised more than $21,000.

The pardon was also urged by Terry Forcht, a top Kentucky Republican donor who has doled out $2.8 million over the last four decades, including more than $100,000 to Bevin’s campaign and inaugural fund.

State Senate Democratic leader Morgan McGarvey told the Courier-Journal that the pardons needed to be reviewed.

"It's clear there was political favoritism involved in these pardons," McGarvey said. "We have got to find out if the pardon power was abused and possibly sold to restore the public's trust in the system."

Bevin also pardoned Micah Schoettle, who was convicted just last year of raping a nine-year-old girl and sentenced to 23 years in prison.

Bevin argued that the conviction was not based on “any physical evidence” but prosecutor Rob Sanders told the Courier-Journal that child molestation cases rarely involve physical evidence.

“Child molesting rarely happens in front of witnesses or leaves physical evidence. If we didn’t pursue those cases, 99% of child rapists would never be prosecuted,” he told the outlet.

Bevin also pardoned Paul Donel Hurt, who was serving a life sentence for sexually abusing a six-year-old girl two decades ago.

Asked how he could pardon a child rapist during a radio interview last week, Bevin replied, “Which one?”

Bevin argued in the interview that there was “zero evidence” in the case even though the victim’s sister was present during the alleged assaults.

"Both their hymens were intact,” Bevin said. “This is perhaps more specific than people would want, but trust me. If you have been repeatedly sexually violated as a small child by an adult, there are going to be repercussions of that physically and medically.”

Former Kentucky chief medical examiner Dr. George Nichols told the Courier-Journal that Bevin’s claim was medically incorrect and that “rape is not proved by hymen penetration.”

“He's not only doesn’t know the law, in my humble opinion, he clearly doesn’t know medicine and anatomy,” Nichols said.

Beshear, Kentucky's new governor and the former state attorney general, said Bevin's comments in that case were "wrong" and "not based in fact," adding, "I think that pardon was wrong."

Bevin’s own party condemned his pardons. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell called the pardons “completely inappropriate.” Both Republican State Senate President Robert Stivers and numerous Senate Democrats have called for federal investigators to look into the pardons.

Bevin told the Courier-Journal’s Joe Sonka that he would welcome an investigation, arguing that the people criticizing him would be the ones who would be prosecuted.

"You will see people subpoenaed, you will see people deposed, you will see people convicted," he said. "If the truth comes out, there will be people involved in this process on the other side of the equation that have very good reason to be very concerned right now. And some of them are the loudest people right now, and for good reason."

Despite some of the controversial pardons, Bevin stressed that the majority of those pardoned had already been released from prison. The New York Times also noted that “more than half of those that he granted clemency were low-level offenders released from overcrowded jails and prisons as part of a planned mass commutation.”

Some criminal justice advocates hailed the majority of the pardons, noting that Kentucky’s incarceration rate is 24 percent higher than the average rate in the United States.

“There are, of course, several good reasons to dislike Bevin, and he is certainly worthy of pointed criticism for his anti-immigrant fearmongering, attacks on reproductive rights, and cuts to public education,” wrote The Appeal’s Adam Johnson. “But when it comes to his choice to free people from prison, liberals should refrain from attacking from the right, further fueling our decades-long culture of anti-reform posturing.”

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

MORE FROM Igor Derysh