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Kentucky Gov. Off Hook — For Now

A judge ruled Friday that Gov. Ernie Fletcher, under fire for a hiring scandal, is protected by executive immunity and cannot be prosecuted while in office.

Fletcher, Kentucky's first Republican governor in three decades, was indicted in May on charges that his administration rewarded political supporters with protected state jobs. He has accused the Democratic attorney general of conducting a politically motivated investigation.

Special Judge David E. Melcher essentially stayed the case until Fletcher's term expires, or unless he is removed through impeachment by the Legislature.

Scott Crawford-Sutherland, the attorney general's top prosecutor, urged the judge not to dismiss the case, saying no man is above the law.

"There is no state in this country that has extended the kind of immunity urged by the governor," he said.

Defense attorney Steve Pitt said during the hearing Friday that the governor was willing to face a jury.

"In some ways, that may be personally preferable, but there are other considerations as well which lead to the motion to dismiss," Pitt said. "That is the important need of this state to return to normalcy, and get back to the operation of government as it should be without the cloud hanging over it of this unprecedented criminal case."

Crawford-Sutherland declined to comment on whether he will appeal the ruling.

Vicki Glass, spokeswoman for the attorney general's office, said prosecutors were pleased that the motion to dismiss was denied.

"The court's ruling affirms the principle that no person is above the law," she said.

Fletcher's attorneys also had argued in motions urging the judge to dismiss the charges that previous governors had committed similar acts to those Fletcher is accused of but weren't prosecuted.

For the past year, a special grand jury has been investigating whether the Fletcher administration broke state law by basing personnel decisions on political considerations. The indictment against Fletcher charged him with criminal conspiracy, official misconduct and violating a prohibition against political discrimination.

Several current and former state employees who appeared before the grand jury said they had been passed over for promotions, transferred, demoted or fired by the Republican administration because of their political leanings.

Fletcher pleaded not guilty last month. Last summer, he issued a blanket pardon for any administration member who might face charges — except himself.

The governor, a physician, is running for re-election in 2007, and the outcome of the hearing was considered pivotal to his campaign.

"Politically, it is a major deal for him," said former Gov. Julian Carroll, now a Democratic state senator. "Obviously, with the deep trouble that he is in, if he can get the charges dismissed on some technical grounds, that avoids him having to be subject to a public trial where the evidence would have been displayed in detail and spread upon the news across the state every day."

Pitt said Friday that he was pleased with the ruling and said it could be years before the case might go to trial. Fletcher had been scheduled for trial Nov. 8.

"We would certainly hope that at this point in time that the prosecutors would go back, look inward and determine what's best for the commonwealth of Kentucky," Pitt said. "That is that this should come to a halt."

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