Swim coach scandal reveals value of open records Skip to content

Swim coach scandal reveals value of open records

UK wasn’t forthcoming about their swim coach and the allegations against him – so John Cheves of the Herald-Leader used our open records laws to get at the truth. Without those laws, it would all still be a secret.

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The Lexington Herald-Leader recently shined an unexpected light on the critical body of Kentucky law that enables its reporters to shine a light on the Commonwealth’s public servants: the open records law.

In “UK declines to talk about swim coach controversy, but KY Open Records Act sheds light” reporter John Cheves delineates how his recent investigation into the University of Kentucky’s gross mishandling of allegations leveled against swimming and diving coach Lars Jorgensen – and the university’s subsequent wall of silence concerning Jorgensen’s and its own misdeeds – would have been impossible were it not for the Kentucky open records law.

Executive editor of the Herald-Leader and kentucky.com, Rick Green, attributes the newspaper’s coverage of this enormously important story of the university – once again more focused on protecting the university “brand” than on addressing a threat to the welfare of its students – to Cheves’ persistence and to public records obtained through the open records law.

The open records law is, as many Kentuckians know, under annual assault by state lawmakers. The law is regularly ignored – and even defied – by public agencies and agency heads taking their cues from feckless leaders who criticize, deride, and in some cases, actively fabricate lies about it.

Not surprisingly, it is the same open records law that exposes these elected leaders’ own improprieties and illegalities, and that secures the public’s right to know “inconvenient and embarrassing” truths like those UK sought to conceal from The Herald-Leader and Cheves – all the while giving pious lip service to the law’s value.

“In the spotlight,” Cheves focuses on the specific role the open records laws played in unraveling the shroud of secrecy woven by the university as it undertook to rid itself of Jorgensen and “pass the harasser” to a subsequent employer with no “black mark on his permanent record.”

Green commits The Herald-Leader “to fight for [the] preservation” of Kentucky’s open government laws.

“UK declines to talk about swim coach controversy, but KY Open Records Act sheds light” should be reprinted on every editorial page in the Commonwealth. It should be required reading for every journalism student, reporter, editor, and media organization; for every disdainful public official (including state lawmakers) and public agency head; every aspiring public official and public agency head; and, indeed, for every Kentuckian who has come to take for granted open government laws that uncovered legislative corruption, university greed and mismanagement, public agency understaffing and malfeasance (often with tragic consequences), bureaucratic inertia and inaction, and old school fraud, graft, greed, grifting, profiteering, self-dealing, nepotism, and incompetence at the state and local level.

Cheves writes: “Nobody at the University of Kentucky wanted to talk about swimming and diving head coach Lars Jorgensen in June 2023 when he suddenly exited the campus amid a swirl of unanswered questions and rumors.

“So with UK officials not speaking for the record — although the school has hired a public relations firm to help it deal with the controversy — the Herald-Leader has relied on Kentucky’s Open Records Act to help it reconstruct events.

“The open records law, enacted by state legislators in 1976, requires public agencies, such as UK, the state’s flagship public university, to share their documents upon request, with limited exceptions.

“So far, we’ve submitted a half-dozen records requests for Jorgensen’s personnel file, including performance evaluations; correspondence about him between university officials; complaints received about him; disciplinary actions taken against him; and communications with his attorneys, among other documents. The responses have included hundreds of pages, some dating back 12 years.

“‘Our reporting of the Lars Jorgensen story wouldn’t happen without the tenacity of investigative reporter John Cheves and our pursuit and review of public documents obtained through the Kentucky Open Records Act,’ said Richard Green, executive editor of the Herald-Leader and kentucky.com.

“‘We believe our readers and Kentucky taxpayers deserve to know all aspects of this controversy,’ he added. “‘We’ll continue to dig into the case, reviewing stacks of public documents to better understand the decisions made by UK’s administrators and look deeply into Jorgensen’s behavior as a UK coach.’

“‘The Herald-Leader’s coverage ‘is further proof of why Kentucky’s legislature and its governor must not tamper with the 48-year-old Kentucky Records Act,” Green said. Efforts to potentially weaken it in the state’s last legislative session were chilling, he said. Any amendments to the act could make stories like the Jorgensen investigation potentially impossible to tell.

“‘We believe a free and open examination of public records, however they may be crafted or shared by public officials, is in Kentucky’s public interest,’ Green said.

“‘The Herald-Leader will continue to fight for its preservation.’”

The Lexington Herald-Leader’s commitment to fight for the preservation of the open records law should be every Kentuckians’ commitment – not just when the laws are under direct legislative attack during the annual legislative session, but year round. Kentuckians should demonstrate their support for open government laws in word and deed: exhorting elected officials to leave the laws alone, and voting those who refuse to do so – in their deeds and despite their words – out of office.

Kentucky’s open government laws “ain’t broken.”

Unless it is to enhance the public’s right to know – by, for example, employing advancements in technology to mandate hybrid public meetings; to require publication on agency websites of agenda materials before, and minutes after, public meetings; and posting notice of special meetings of public agencies on agency websites – we should demand that these elected officials cease pretending to “fix,” modernize, and/or clarify laws that are abundantly clear to all but these self-serving proponents of unneeded change.

It is these elected officials – lawmakers and office holders – who deeply resent the law, and seek to undermine it by whatever means are within their grasp.

It is these elected officials who cultivate defiance of the words of the framers of the law, writing in its 1970s’ preamble:

“[T]he people of this Commonwealth do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies which serve them; the people, in delegating authority, do not give their public servants the right to decide what is good for them to know; the people insist on remaining informed so they may retain control over the instruments that they have created.”

It is this breed of public servant – legislator, governor, university administrator – who is unworthy of public office and the public’s trust.

To each we issue this challenge: please prove us wrong.

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Amye Bensenhaver

Amye is a retired assistant AG who specialized in open records laws. She is the co-founder of the Kentucky Open Government Coalition. (Read the rest of her bio on the Contributors page.)

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