Republican lawmakers want more oversight of disaster relief funds following a report that checks from donations had been sent to people unaffected by the December 2021 tornado outbreak.
The Lexington Herald-Leader reported earlier this month thousands of dollars worth of $1,000 relief checks, provided through the Team Western Kentucky Tornado Relief Fund, were sent in December to Kentuckians unaffected by the tornado outbreak. Since then, Republicans have voiced strong concerns over how the more than $60 million in donations collected after tornadoes and floods have been spent.
Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear, who’s up for reelection this year, has recently pushed back on the criticism and defended the transparency of the disaster relief funds, also explaining the decisions made by the Kentucky Public Protection Cabinet (PPC) that oversees the funds.
A leader of a long-term recovery group in Western Kentucky on Friday cautioned against politicizing the disaster, while also acknowledging the need for determining ways to improve disaster response on local and state levels in the future.
“I would suggest that everyone realize that mistakes were made,” said Wynn Radford, the chair of the Christian County Long Term Recovery Group. “Let’s not make this political theater and throw people under the bus.”
Sen. Whitney Westerfield, R-Fruit Hill, who represents Christian County, said he was spurred to file a bill seeking answers about the donated funds in part because a Hopkinsville resident reached out to him saying he erroneously received a $1,000 relief check.
“He lives in Hopkinsville and there was (tornado) damage in Hopkinsville. But not with him,” Westerfield said. “We want to know what’s going on.”
The bill, according to Westerfield, would require the PPC to provide a report to the Legislative Research Commission by the end of the fiscal year, which is the end of June, over the specifics of how donated disaster relief funds have been spent so far, who’s made the decisions over the funds and what mechanisms are in place to prevent fraud, among other questions.
“We want to get to the bottom of where the money’s at, where it’s going, and they need to be able to answer,” Westerfield said.
While concerns have been raised with the Team Western Kentucky Tornado Relief Fund, Westerfield said the bill as written would also apply to the Team Eastern Kentucky Flood Relief Fund, even though there hasn’t been any reported “goof ups” with that donation fund.
The report the proposed legislation would require would also extend to analyzing other disbursements from the tornado relief fund, such as about $12 million given for individual unmet needs and life essentials.
Rep. Jason Petrie, R-Elkton, who serves as chair of the House Appropriations and Revenue Committee, told the Lantern a bill of his own seeking oversight of the donation funds is forthcoming but declined to provide details about what the bill would look like.
The Lexington Herald-Leader reported the pending legislation from Petrie would, among other aspects, create reporting mechanisms for the fund and could require money raised by constitutional officers for disaster relief to go through a regular appropriations process.
The newspaper had also reported Republican State Auditor Mike Harmon, one of 12 Republican gubernatorial primary candidates, was considering a potential audit of the funds, either through a third party or through his office without Harmon’s involvement.
Get these guys out of Frankfort down here. We'll meet them in the afternoon. We’ll knock this thing out. It's not that hard.
– Wynn Radford, chair of the Christian County Long Term Recovery Group
Michael Goins, a spokesperson for Harmon’s office, said the office would not be “self-initiating” any audit because of ethics concerns with Harmon being a candidate for governor.
“Our office is monitoring any action by the General Assembly concerning any potential audit or examination of the West Kentucky Tornado Relief Fund,” Goins said.
A PPC spokesperson Kristin Voskuhl in a statement said the disaster relief donation funds are “fully transparent” and that PPC officials have testified in front of legislative committees four times about the use of the funds.
“We are proud to be a part of the work accomplished with these funds and welcome legislative review,” Voskuhl said.
“This is an open book”
Beshear echoed the PPC’s comments in a Thursday press conference, delivering rebuttals to the concerns raised by Republicans while defending the transparency of the Team Western Kentucky Tornado Relief Fund.
He said every disbursement from the donation funds can be examined through open records requests and are available to view on the respective donation fund websites.
“This is an open book. Everything here’s a public record,” Beshear said. “In terms of oversight or reporting, we’re happy to do regular reports, and if people want to put that into law, that’s fine.”
He said people who received some of the $1,000 relief checks sent in December either were on a list of a private insurance company or on a Federal Emergency Management Agency list as having received some amount of funding after the tornado outbreak.
Beshear also warned lawmakers against enacting legislation that would “end the ability to have these funds or their flexibility.”
He said if such a bill would require a legislative appropriation for donated disaster relief funds to go to survivors in future disasters, then it could take more time than necessary to get funding into the hands of survivors.
He pointed to the establishment of the West Kentucky State Aid Funding for Emergencies, or SAFE fund, as an example of the slower legislative process. It took the GOP-controlled legislature and the Democratic governor four months after the December 2021 tornado outbreak to sign into law a bill that established the SAFE fund, which provides local governments, schools and utilities with millions of dollars in funding to rebuild and recover.
“All they’ll do is mean that there is less money available in future events,” Beshear said. “It took them four months to create the Western Kentucky SAFE fund while people suffered.”
A need for feedback
Radford, the chair of the Christian County recovery group, has been on the forefront of helping disaster survivors in his local tornado-impacted communities, the volunteer organization only being established months after after the December 2021 tornado outbreak.
Radford was one of several long-term recovery group leaders who raised concerns about months of delays in using the $12 million in donations set aside from the tornado relief fund for survivors’ individual unmet needs and life essentials.
The Lantern reported more than 90% of the $12 million meant to go to individual unmet needs — with local long-term recovery groups in charge of having survivors apply for some of the unmet needs funding — had gone unspent as of mid-January. Long-term recovery groups say unreasonable and restrictive rules prevented them from getting the funding into survivor’s hands sooner.
Beshear and the PPC have defended rules put onto the $12 million, saying such rules were needed to prevent funding from going to fewer survivors and make the most of the donations.
Radford said he understands the need for improving disaster response for the future, proposing the idea that other counties in Kentucky could form long-term recovery groups ahead of a disaster to be better prepared.
Another idea that’s front of mind for Radford: improving communication with those on the front lines of disaster recovery.
Radford suggested PPC officials or other relevant stakeholders could travel to Western Kentucky to meet with long-term recovery groups working in the disaster areas to get direct feedback and recommendations on how to improve disaster response in the future.
“Get these guys out of Frankfort down here. We’ll meet them in the afternoon. We’ll knock this thing out. It’s not that hard,” Radford said.
Written by Liam Niemeyer. Cross-posted from the Kentucky Lantern.