FRANKFORT, Ky. (AP) — The family home that Kentucky's Republican governor purchased from a friend and political appointee is worth $1.3 million less than local officials say it is, according to the governor's lengthy appeal to tax assessors in his county.
The appeal is Gov. Matt Bevin's first detailed account of the purchase that has prompted two ethics complaints and captivated Kentucky's political circles in the months since The Courier-Journal first wrote about the sale. If it succeeds, the appeal could quash the ethics complaints and arm Bevin with a defense against charges of corruption that Democrats are sure to level at him when he runs for re-election in 2019.
Bevin and his wife, Glenna, purchased the home from Neil and Anne Ramsey on March 17. Bevin's attorney, Mark Sommers, said the families "formed a close friendship" after meeting a local restaurant following church one Sunday. Ramsey, who owns an investment company, has donated to Bevin's political campaigns, and Bevin appointed Ramsey to the Kentucky Retirement Systems board of directors.
Bevin, his wife and their nine children have access to the Governor's Mansion in Frankfort, which has 25 rooms over more than 18,000 square feet, but they don't live there. Most of the mansion is public space, leaving the top floor for residential use, and Bevin's lawyer said it "could not be used on a day-to-day basis" by a family of 11 people.
And after Bevin took office in December 2015, it became clear that the family's 3,500 square-foot home in Louisville had "security and accessibility problems that became worse over time," the lawyer said.
Last fall, Bevin asked Ramsey about buying an 8,000-square foot house he owned in Anchorage, a wealthy suburb of Louisville, the state's largest city. Ramsey and his wife lived next door, and Sommers said they "did not want to sell it to buyers they did not know." He called it a "win-win situation."
"The Bevins would obtain a house of sufficient size and seclusion to meet their needs, and the Ramseys would get fair value and good friends as their neighbors," Sommers wrote.
Bevin, an investment manager like Ramsey, bought the property with his wife, paying $1.6 million in cash. Neither side paid for an appraisal. Sommers said Bevin has hired an appraiser and will present the result county officials.
Jefferson County officials say it is worth nearly $3 million, based on the value that Ramsey himself had declared in his deed. The disparity has prompted requests by an ethics watchdog and a Democratic lawmaker for an investigation by the Kentucky ethics commission to determine if the sale price amounted to an improper gift.
But Sommers argues local officials made several errors in calculating the property's value. The home originally sat on a 19-acre parcel. But the Bevins purchased 10 acres while Ramsey kept the other 9 acres. Sommers said Jefferson County officials mistakenly applied the value of all 19 acres to the Bevins' purchase.
Anchorage tax assessors lowered the city's valuation of the 19-acre property to $2.2 million after an earlier appeal by Ramsey. But Sommers says it's worth even less, because it's "well over one-hundred years old and in a considerable state of disrepair" despite the Ramseys' "herculean effort" to restore the house before the Bevins bought it.
The property no longer includes a 3-acre parcel that would block the Bevins' view of the road should it ever be developed, and the Bevins lack clear title, because the Ramseys retained both legal access to property and "right of first refusal" should the Bevins ever try to sell it.
"A fairly valued assessment should take account of these facts, which the current assessment plainly does not," Sommers wrote.
Democratic state Rep. Darryl Owens filed an ethics complaint against Bevin on Monday. Owens said if the house does turn out to be worth much less than its previous valuation, it would satisfy his concerns, but he doesn't think most of these arguments are "legitimate."
"I think this is something that is right for the ethics commission to take a look at," Owens said. "Ethics doesn't mean it's illegal. Ethics means there is an aura of unfairness about a particular transaction."