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BLANDFORD'S ROUT SHOWS NEED FOR TOUGH ETHICS LAW

FRANKFORT, Ky. -- It is understatement to describe Wednesday's battle of wits in U.S. District Court as a mismatch.

In one corner stood former House Speaker Don Blandford, the nervous butcher from Philpot. In the other stood Assistant U.S. Attorney Steve Pence, master of the sweet science of cross-examination and fresh from brutalizing Bruce Wilkinson in the same ring last month. The three-hour bout was the climax of Blandford's two-week bribery trial. It was painful to watch.

With powerful videotapes and the testimony of Blandford's best friends, Pence pummeled the former speaker with precision and tenacity – restricted only by the very real risk that jurors would pity Blandford.

But give Blandford credit. He did not shrink into a rope-a-dope posture. He flailed with countercharges that the federal government set him up to take bribes because he was the "big fish" in the General Assembly. Blandford said the feds squeezed his friends until they reluctantly agreed to testify against him. But each time Blandford took a swipe, he opened himself to more punishment. Is it logical, Pence asked, for Blandford's friends to perjure themselves in testifying against Blandford?

When Pence had finished, Blandford was down for the count. His lawyers seemed to throw in the towel, declining any attempt to revive their man with easy questions on re-direct examination.

Two days later, Blandford was found guilty. But when it was over, Blandford did not quite look like the man described in his indictment – a racketeer, a conspirator, an extorter of bribes, a liar.

Nor did he look like the man described by the defense – a decent, small- town guy who never went to college but through hard work attained a tremendously powerful office.

The prosecution's strong case and Blandford's sad-but-sincere defense ultimately painted a picture of a weak and dull-witted guy, a legislator who grew so enamored of the trappings of his office – large staff; a steady flow of unsolicited campaign funds from special interests; lobbyist-paid drinks, meals and vacations -- that he merely quipped "Bless your heart" when a lobbyist slipped him cash.

The FBI's key evidence against Blandford was a videotape that captured him taking money from his friend, lobbyist Bill McBee. Blandford admitted taking money, but he claimed it was less than the $1,500 alleged in his indictment. And he claimed he did nothing in exchange for the money, so it wasn't a bribe. But by admitting he took money, Blandford opened the door for Pence to explore his murky view of the world for an explanation as to why he took the lobbyists' cash and freebies.

Pence asked why McBee's clients would want to give cash to Blandford. "I can't speak for his clients," Blandford answered. Pence persisted, asking Blandford to give his own opinion as to why a lobbyist would want to give him money.

"For entertainment," Blandford said.

Pence repeated the question, and finally Blandford said: "I think they're comfortable with Don Blandford as speaker of the House....I think they want to have some kind of access, some kind of rapport with the speaker."

Pence asked if Blandford felt he had done nothing wrong in taking the money. Blandford said he had not done anything "illegal."

"But do you think it was wrong?" Pence pressed.

"I would not do it again," Blandford said.

Pence apparently sensed that Blandford had finally gotten it. "Why would you not do it again?"

"We passed a new ethics law," Blandford said.

Because Blandford saw nothing wrong with freebies, Pence got him to talk about lobbyist-paid junkets to Fort Lauderdale, Pompano Beach, Gulf Shores and the stock car races at Talladega. Pence also alleged there were earlier cash payments to Blandford from lobbyists, but Blandford said if such payments were made they were only modest amounts – $100 or $200 payments from McBee in 1992. And he said any money was for drinks and dinner mostly for others and not just for himself.

If Blandford saw nothing wrong with any of this, Pence made sure the jury did. He noted that while Blandford took money for meals and drinks during legislative sessions, taxpayers were paying Blandford $75 per day for expenses -- an amount that probably seemed princely to the jury.

A video of a March 11, 1992, payment from McBee to Blandford was the most powerful evidence of bribery. But another video – recorded on a boat off Fort Lauderdale on Jan. 31, 1992 – would eliminate any doubt as to the immense return lobbyists get for their dollar.

It shows Blandford, McBee and super-lobbyist Jay Spurrier swapping stories about what appear to be two favorite topics – the art of lobbying and women. Spurrier laments that there are so few lobbyists left who pick up the tabs for legislators in Frankfort.

"Spurrier, you're not around that much. There's some of the others that pay," said McBee, who tells a funny story of a lobbyist who had gotten angry one recent night because a Frankfort bar didn't put enough of the tab on his account.

Blandford occasionally chimed in -- once to defend the reputation of a lobbyist who always picked up his share of the bill.

Through it all, Spurrier tended to Blandford's every need.

"Do you want me to break out the cold beer?" he asked. "Donnie, you all right?"

In reference to Blandford's secretary, who was on the trip but not on the boat, Spurrier asked, "Does she like that fresh orange juice?"

Blandford answered, "Oh, that orange juice is good."

"Has she been in the Bailey's yet?" Spurrier asked. "She likes that Bailey's, don't she?"

The scenes of the boys on the boat showed that at least two lobbyists were indeed "comfortable with Don Blandford as speaker of the House."

Some kind of access. Some kind of rapport.

But Blandford learned from other tapes that he was mistaken if he ever thought Spurrier or McBee respected him or were grateful for the access. One recorded a giggling Spurrier asking McBee to describe McBee's payments to Blandford. "Damn! I tell ya," McBee said. "He grabs it like a -------dog!"

In the end, Friday's verdicts proved Blandford did the public a favor in fighting the charges rather than pleading guilty.

The trial provided a rare and detailed look inside the relationships between certain powerful legislators and lobbyists. And Pence's questioning of Blandford -- in which Blandford seemed so confused and so reluctant to examine why lobbyists gave him gifts -- was the best case made to date for an ethics law that would eliminate confusion and ban lobbyists from giving legislators so much as a cup of coffee.

Tom Loftus– The Courier Journal