Guest post by Dan Phelps. Mr. Phelps’s most recent contribution to PT was Your Brain as a Walnut in November 2021. Matt Young will be the principal moderator of this thread.
I have been using the Kentucky Open Records Act (KORA) for several years to keep up with attempts by creationists to infiltrate schools, receive tax incentives for the Ark Encounter theme park, and monitor attendance levels at the Ark Encounter. Usually, government entities have been cooperative with my efforts. The public, after all, should have the right to know how the government, at all levels, conducts its business. Alas, the Kentucky Attorney General has protected himself from public scrutiny.
On September 8, 2021, Kentucky Attorney General (AG) Daniel Cameron visited the Ark Encounter near Williamstown, Kentucky. On September 12, 2021, a brief, professionally done video of his visit was posted to the Kentucky Attorney General’s official state Twitter page (this is not a political campaign site, but an official Commonwealth of Kentucky account for the AG’s Office). The video ends by displaying a link to the AG’s website.
The video shows that the AG and his entourage received a personal tour from Ken Ham, even viewing the quasi-spectacular vista on the upper deck where tourists generally are not allowed. Interestingly, there isn’t any audio of Cameron or Ham, just quick edit clips of Ham leading a tour set to music. It is difficult to imagine anything helpful or informative to Kentuckians about the video, and it appears to be nothing more the AG pandering to the most conservative Kentucky voters.
Daniel Cameron has been Kentucky’s Attorney General since 2019. He is the first Republican to hold the office since the 1940s and the first African American to hold the office, ever. For two years after receiving his law degree from the University of Louisville in 2011, he was a law clerk to US District Judge Gregory F. Van Tatenhove of the US District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky. Judge Tatenhove is well-known for ruling in favor of Answers in Genesis (AiG) receiving $18.25 million in tax rebate incentives from the Commonwealth of Kentucky in the case of Ark Encounter LLC et al. vs Bob Stewart et al. Later, Daniel Cameron served as a legal counsel to then Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky from 2015 to 2017. Cameron led legal efforts to see that numerous federal judges were confirmed during the Trump administration. After this, he worked for a Kentucky law firm before winning the race for AG in 2019. Controversies during his tenure as AG have included his handling of the grand jury during the Breonna Taylor case (Breonna Taylor was an unarmed young African American woman killed when the Louisville police enforced a no-knock warrant). Cameron also has challenged emergency Covid mask mandates by Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear. In early November 2021, he sued the Federal Government in an attempt to block the Biden Administration’s mandate that employees of federal contractors be vaccinated. In August 2020 Cameron spoke at the Republican National Convention. In September 2020, his name appeared on a list by then President Donald Trump as a potential candidate for the US Supreme Court. It is no secret in Kentucky political circles that he may be a future candidate for Governor of Kentucky, or a candidate to replace Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell when McConnell eventually retires.
Intrigued and disturbed by the Twitter video, which I failed to see until mid-October 2021, I filed a Kentucky Open Records Act (KORA) request with the Attorney General’s Office on October 20. I requested: (1) All electronic mail, messages, mail, or other correspondence between the Office of Kentucky Attorney General and Answers In Genesis, between January 1 and October 15, 2021; (2) Any receipts and other evidence of taxpayer funds expended on the visit to the Ark Encounter facility; (3) A list of attendees employed by the Commonwealth of Kentucky in connection with the visit; (4) Any mileage logs, travel receipts, or other statements reflecting travel to or from the Ark Encounter; and finally (5) Any written material, or other documents provided to the Attorney General or other employees of the Commonwealth of Kentucky during or following the above-referenced visit. I had help drafting this letter and appeals from Tony Sammons, a retired local attorney, David MacMillan, a law school student, and Amye Bensenhaver of the Kentucky Open Government Coalition.
I asked for all of the information above because I want to know the details of Answers in Genesis’s influence on Kentucky’s politics.
After the AG’s Office asked for an extension, I eventually received an empty and broken-open envelope on November 9. After further communication, I finally received the KORA package electronically via Dropbox on November 12. This was more than 20 days after my initial request. To my surprise, I received only a copy of the video that was posted to Twitter and approximately 70 still photographs of Attorney General Cameron, his wife, and their entourage (presumably attorneys and security guards) getting the personal tour from Ken Ham. Particularly disturbing, and in an odd sense comical, were the photos of the AG with Ham standing in front of displays explaining why Noah took only baby dinosaurs on the Ark (Figure 1) and why anthropogenic climate change is wrong (Figure 2). AG Cameron also is on the top deck of the Ark with Ken Ham (Figure 3). There was also a photo that included Answers in Genesis’ attorney John Pence (Figure 4). That, along with random photos of other unnamed staff and security guards, was all I received. I wasn’t even given information as to the exact date of the event (info in the photo metadata tags indicates September 8, 2021). Interestingly, if the metadata on the photographs is correct, the KY AG’s entourage arrived at 10:45 am, but did not enter the Ark-shaped building until about 1:40 pm. This gave ample time for discussions between the Attorney General, Ken Ham, and their staffs.
Unfortunately, I received nothing concerning how much tax money was expended on this propaganda. I again contacted the Open Records Officer at the Attorney General’s Office, thinking information had been mistakenly omitted. The AG’s Office explained it was withholding everything else that I requested. The KY AG’s Office claimed not to have records on who accompanied Daniel Cameron or any expenses related to the trip; not even mileage or fuel expenses. The AG’s Office admitted that three emails that initiated the event, but claimed that these were exempt from KORA. The excuse given for not providing the three emails was that records related to meetings and calendar invitations are exempt in a rather broad interpretation of a case about the Kentucky Open Records Act: Courier-Journal v. Jones. KY AG’s Office has notoriously interpreted several court cases in odd ways as limiting open records requests. I decided to appeal the decision.
Unfortunately, the Kentucky AG’s Office oversees all appeals to the Kentucky Open Records Act in Kentucky, unless one opts to go directly to Circuit Court. An attorney is essential to have a chance of success in Circuit Court. Thus, the appeal was ruled on by the very agency involved in the complaint. My appeal was responded to by a political appointee from the KY AG’s Office, which was not surprising or improper. My appeal was ultimately rejected on the grounds that the information requested was broadly, and in my opinion inappropriately, interpreted to be part of the AG’s schedule and exempt from KORA because of the Courier-Journal v. Jones ruling mentioned above. Most remarkably, the rejection of my appeal was also written by a political appointee at the KY AG’s Office. At a minimum a Kentucky Merit System employee, who supposedly would not be subject to political pressure, should have written the final decision. I was given 30 days to appeal.
Filing an appeal to the KY AG’s decision in Circuit Court would require more complex legal skills than I am capable of (I’m a geologist with a background in paleontology/paleoecology.) An appeal without legal counsel had the prospect of me arguing the case in circuit court.* It also would require considerable money unless an attorney would accept the case pro bono. I attempted for some time to get the ACLU and local attorneys to help. Unfortunately, every attorney I contacted had too many pro bono cases already in litigation. Sadly, no one representing the ACLU even bothered to contact me. Thus, the deadline to appeal passed on March 16, 2022. Perhaps others with legal resources can request the three emails between the Kentucky Attorney General and Ken Ham/AiG.
The most plausible explanation for the AG visiting the Ark Park was that he was playing to his political base and affirming that he supported ultraconservative Christians. In all probability this visit was merely an attempt by Daniel Cameron to get support for his future political ambitions. Given the lengthy time span between arrival and touring the Ark, were other things done during the trip? The three emails I was denied could have clarified the trip’s full purpose. Was this meeting to get additional financial support or new tourism tax incentives for AiG’s building of a Tower of Babel “replica” on the Ark property? Does Ken Ham want the AG to support teaching creationism in Kentucky public schools? Or does this have something to do with AiG’s opposition to mask and vaccine mandates, which Daniel Cameron has also vigorously worked against? These questions are necessary because of the importance of science education, public health, the separation of church and state, financial integrity in the use of taxpayer’s money by the Commonwealth of Kentucky, and how public servants use their time when they are supposed to be doing their job.
Without the transparency of a useful government open records policy, we may never know the answers. At the very least, the refusal to supply the information I requested is antithetical to the reasons open records laws were created in the first place. “Democracy Dies in Darkness” is the official slogan of the Washington Post. The adage applies not only to the media investigating the government, but citizens of all stripes with concerns about government activity. All parts of the political spectrum should support open records and government transparency. Since newspapers, which have large budgets for legal representation are shrinking, how are local advocates and activists such as I to receive information from an increasingly evasive and secretive government? Ordinary citizens concerned about government activities increasingly have less access to information.
*Before you act, it’s Prudence soberly to consider; for after Action you cannot recede without dishonour: Take the Advice of some Prudent Friend; for he who will be his own Counsellour, shall be sure to have a Fool for his Client. – William De Britaine, 1682