By John Cheves
Gov. Steve Beshear’s administration gave away $31,287 worth of tickets to the 2012 Olympic Games after canceling plans to send a delegation.
In February, after the Lexington Herald-Leader asked about it, Beshear’s administration nixed plans to promote the state during equine events at the Olympics in London, England. In light of ongoing state budget cuts, “the trip is no longer affordable or prudent,” state Tourism Department spokesman Gil Lawson said at the time.
However, the state’s 20 tickets to the Olympics were nonrefundable and couldn’t easily be resold under Olympics rules. So tourism officials gave them away.
The Tourism Department asked its British marketing contractor, Gosh P.R., to deliver the tickets to two British tour companies — America As You Like It and American Roundup — that sometimes do business in Kentucky. The tour companies gave the tickets to their customers.
“Understand, we felt like we had a contractual obligation to go ahead and pay for this because we had asked Gosh to buy these tickets for us back in 2011,” Lawson said Monday. “We did not know until February that we couldn’t get our money back.”
Going forward with the Olympics trip would have required even more money for airfare, hotels, food and other expenses, Lawson said.
“The cabinet did not feel it was appropriate to spend any more on this,” he said.
The state canceled its $179,900-a-year contract with Gosh P.R. shortly thereafter following news stories in the Herald-Leader about Gosh P.R.’s performance, including its touting of “Roadkill Bingo” as one of Kentucky’s tourist attractions.
Tourism Commissioner Mike Cooper then resigned after the Herald-Leader reported that he violated state ethics law by allowing Gosh P.R. to pay $735 for his meals, event tickets and other expenses during an unauthorized trip he took to London in 2011. Cooper — a former Beshear campaign worker — reached a settlement in July with the Executive Branch Ethics Commission, admitting the violation and agreeing to pay a $2,000 civil penalty.
As originally planned, Cooper would have helped lead the state delegation to the Olympics last summer to attend equestrian events and promote Kentucky tourism to international tour operators and media. First lady Jane Beshear planned to attend at her own expense, a spokeswoman said.
“Apparently, Mike Cooper is the gift that keeps on giving,” Steve Robertson, chairman of the Republican Party of Kentucky, said Monday.
“This is just another example of why we can’t have nice things in Kentucky,” Robertson said. “We make bad decisions about where we spend our money, and we do it without asking the questions we need to ask, such as whether a trip is really essential and whether we can get our money back if we change our minds. It shows a cavalier attitude about public funds.”
The Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau planned to send several people with the state delegation to the Olympics, and it contributed $10,000 toward the cost of tickets. However, the state later reimbursed the bureau its $10,000.
“Unfortunately, they canceled the event,” said Jim Browder, president of the Lexington Convention and Visitors Bureau. “I wish they hadn’t, quite frankly. We thought that it would be a huge opportunity to have that many equine writers in one spot. You can spend $10,000 on a single magazine ad to promote your city.”