By Jack Brammer | Lexington Herald-Leader

FRANKFORT – Gov. Matt Bevin’s administration is spending nearly $250,000 this year for a new hotline and website that state employees and Kentucky residents can use to report wrongdoing in government.

Attorney General Andy Beshear said he has “serious concerns” about the new hotline, calling it redundant and lacking independent, trained investigators.

Kentucky Attorney General Andy Beshear

“I, like all Kentuckians, want to ensure that reports of unethical or illegal actions are reported to and investigated by a trained, independent and nonpartisan government agency,” Beshear said in an email.

Beshear, a Democrat, noted that state employees may anonymously report any questionable activity to his office through its Department of Criminal Investigation at 866-524-3672. That number is answered by sworn law enforcement officers, who are career merit employees, not at-will employees, he said.

Under Bevin’s hotline, reports “will not go to an independent law enforcement agency, but to his political employees who will then decide which allegations are investigated and which are not,” said the state’s chief law-enforcement official.

“That is putting the fox in charge of the henhouse,” Beshear said.

When asked about Beshear’s criticisms, Finance and Administration Cabinet spokeswoman Pamela Trautner did not directly address his comments.

Bevin’s director of communications, Amanda Stamper, said Thursday, “The irony is rich that Attorney General Beshear would come out against a tip line for state employees to report abuse the same day Tim Longmeyer’s co-defendant is sentenced to federal prison.”

She was referring to the sentencing of Samuel C. McIntosh to 65 months in federal prison for his role in a bribery scandal. He paid more than $850,000 in kickbacks from 2011 to 2015 to get work for his company, MC Squared Consulting, in a scheme with Tim Longmeyer, who was former Gov. Steve Beshear’s Personnel Cabinet secretary, and Larry O’Bryan, a Democratic political consultant in Louisville.

Longmeyer previously was ordered to serve 70 months in prison, and O’Bryan was sentenced to 60 months. Longmeyer worked briefly for Andy Beshear as his deputy attorney general before quitting when he learned he was under investigation. Federal prosecutors have said Beshear was not aware of the wrongdoing.

The new state hotline, accessible at Tipline.ky.gov or by calling 1-800-590-3921, allows anyone to report in English or Spanish their concerns regarding improper, illegal or unsafe activity in the state’s executive branch of government. This could range from financial concerns, such as theft or misstated financial statements, to harassment, discrimination, and workplace safety.

Under the system, people can remain anonymous if they choose. Those seeking anonymity will be given a “unique identifier” so they may interact with investigators as the investigation proceeds. Users can share evidence, investigators can contact users with additional questions for clarification, or the user can check on the progress of the investigation.

Another feature is that users are given the names of potential investigators. If an issue is related to one of the investigators, the user can prevent that person from receiving notification of the reported incident. The case would then be rerouted to someone else for review.

Trautner said the new reporting service doesn’t replace hotlines used by other investigative agencies.

“Existing hotlines and Tipline.ky.gov will work together to ensure that taxpayer dollars are expended appropriately,” she said.

The finance cabinet’s Office of Policy and Audit is the initial point of contact for filed reports. When applicable, reports will be referred to other investigative agencies.

Before launching the new tipline, the cabinet worked with Inspector General offices, the Auditor of Public Accounts and the Executive Branch Ethics Commission to ensure that they receive referrals within the system when appropriate, Trautner said. Also, the Personnel Cabinet named an ombudsman, Larry Gillis, this week to help handle tips from the new hotline.

Beshear said the new system is redundant, and that people can already report wrongdoing to the Kentucky State Police, state auditor, Kentucky State Safety Program, Kentucky Human Rights Commission, the Executive Branch Ethics Commission and the general counsel in the Personnel Cabinet.

“There are already a host of avenues employees may take to air any grievances or report any wrongdoing in state government,” he said.

David Smith, executive director of the Kentucky Association of State Employees, said the new hotline “could be another tool for good government if used properly,” but he voiced concern that it could be “mismanaged and target some people.”

The state signed a contract with Red Flag Reporting of Akron, Ohio, for $249,250 to run the tipline in its first year, including an initial set-up fee of $50,000.

The annual cost will be adjusted based on reporting volume, Trautner said. At the end of the first year, the contract may be renewed for four additional one-year renewal periods.

The contract took effect March 23.