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Records case leads to rare agreement among political rivals

Daniel Cameron's office said the state Department of Agriculture violated Kentucky's open records law by failing to respond to a request for records from Democrats.

FRANKFORT, Ky. — An open-records case led to rare agreement Friday between the Kentucky Democratic Party and the state's Republican attorney general, Daniel Cameron, in a legal dispute fraught with undertones related to next year’s governor’s race.

Cameron's office concluded that the state Department of Agriculture violated Kentucky's open records law by failing to respond to a request for records from the Democratic Party. The decision involved likely opponents in the 2023 race for governor — which already has threatened to overshadow this year's U.S. Senate and congressional contests.

The agriculture department is run by Agriculture Commissioner Ryan Quarles, who formally entered the race for governor this week. His campaign rivals include Cameron, who filed paperwork last month signaling his bid for governor in what's shaping up as a crowded GOP primary for the state's top political job. 

The Democratic Party is a frequent critic of Quarles and Cameron, both of whom want to unseat Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear.

RELATED: Kentucky AG's office says there is 'no active investigation' into governor's office

On Friday, at least, Democrats were trumpeting the open-records decision by Cameron's office. They made no mention of their obvious interest in a contentious Republican gubernatorial primary, which could benefit Beshear when he encounters the winner in a general election bid for a second term.

The agriculture department said Friday night that it does not intend to appeal the ruling, and a Quarles spokesman said the Democrats' pursuit of information was politically motivated, “confirming" that the agriculture commissioner “is their greatest threat” in 2023.

The case stems from a request for records sought by Democrats related to litigation involving Quarles or the agriculture department. 

The request, which sought emails and text messages generated or sent on government-owned email accounts and cellphones as well as those on non-government email accounts and cellphones, was made by state Democratic Party executive director Sebastian Kitchen.

His initial request was made in February. The agriculture department said it would not provide records protected by attorney-client privilege. It asked that Kitchen clarify which litigation he was referring to in his request. 

Kitchen refused and submitted a new request April 20.

The Democratic executive sought emails and text messages related to any litigation involving the department during Quarles' tenure as agriculture commissioner. The department did not respond to the follow-up request, and the Democratic Party appealed to the attorney general's office.

RELATED: Kentucky reports lowest unemployment rate in state history, signaling economy 'absolutely on fire'

The AG's decision, dated Thursday, said the department violated the state's open records law by failing to respond to the April 20 request for records. The ruling also said the department did not commit a violation when it sought clarification of the initial February request.

The Democratic Party responded with a news release touting the AG's opinion and slamming Quarles. The release said Cameron “agreed” with the party that the agriculture department had violated the open records law.

“The public has a right to know how Ryan Quarles is spending their tax dollars and why he’s in court," Kitchen said in a follow-up statement.

Offering a starkly different assessment, the agriculture department said the AG's decision showed that “politically motivated cronies can't file vague, imprecise and baseless requests.”

Under state law, opinions issued by the attorney general on open-records and open-meetings issues carry the weight of law unless appealed in circuit court.

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