O'Connell, Ackerson trade barbs in spirited race for Jefferson County attorney
Veiled racism. Allegations of covering up the sexual abuse of teens by Louisville Metro Police. Forcing employees to make campaign contributions – or be fired.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Veiled racism. Allegations of covering up the sexual abuse of teens by Louisville Metro Police. Forcing employees to make campaign contributions – or be fired.
These are few of the political haymakers thrown in an unusually fiery Democratic primary for Jefferson County attorney – a race that will likely determine who will advise Metro government and represents it in civil lawsuits No Republicans have filed to run, meaning only a write-in candidate could challenge the winner of the May 22 election.
Metro Councilman Brent Ackerson hasn’t pulled any punches against the incumbent, Mike O’Connell, accusing him of pressuring employees to help fund his campaign and noting that O’Connell initially said he wanted the alleged victims of sexual abuse in the Louisville Metro Police Explorer scandal to be publicly named.
“He thought it was only appropriate if the officers were named (in lawsuits), these officers who committed heinous rape of children were named, he thought these victims, because they are over the age of 18 -- now their names should also be out there,” Ackerson said at a Louisville Forum debate with O’Connell in April.
Ackerson, who was elected to the council in 2008, has also implied that O’Connell may be protecting community leaders who knew of the police sexual abuse scandal and could have stopped it earlier.
“It appears to me there's been a cover-up; the question is just how high up does it go?” Ackerson said in an interview with WDRB News. “When people were investigating in 2013, are you telling me there was no legal advice on how to potentially deal with this? There's concern there, I mean, how much knowledge did the county attorney's office have?”
O’Connell has fired back, insinuating race was a factor when Ackerson was the only council Democrat to vote against appointing University of Louisville professor Ricky L. Jones to a citizen’s police accountability board in May.
“Your vote was embarrassing and shameful and I trust that something like that will never happen again,” O’Connell told Ackerson at the April 12 forum. “But it seems to be consistent with some of your votes on council.”
And on Jones’ radio show earlier this year, O’Connell suggested that Ackerson purposefully chose in 2006 – while a registered Republican – to run for a judicial seat against two black women.
In addition, O’Connell who was appointed in 2008 and has won election twice since, has also questioned Ackerson’s lack of experience in the courts, noting he has not been a judge or a prosecutor, and whether he has been an effective council member.
“I’m not sure what legislation he has ever proposed of note in the eight or ten years he has been on council,” O’Connell said at the Louisville forum.
Ackerson said his vote had nothing to do with Jones being black. He said he did not “feel that it was the right appointment at that time.”
“I know that might have upset Dr. Jones,” Ackerson said at the Louisville Forum. “I told him that night, explained my position on the record, and then went to him afterward, shook his hand, told him it wasn’t anything personal and congratulated him on his victory.”
As county attorney, O’Connell is representing the city in six lawsuits filed by alleged victims of sexual abuse by Louisville police officers over several years in a youth mentoring program. After a hearing last year on whether the alleged sexual assault victim should be identified in the first lawsuit – currently the plaintiff is known only by the initials “N.C.” – O’Connell told reporters “it is not fair” for police to be named but not the former Explorer.
“The playing field needs to be level,” O’Connell said at the time.
O’Connell said he “misspoke” and hours later issued a statement saying he doesn’t want the alleged assault victims to be identified. He said it’s up to a judge to decide whether the alleged victims should be named in the lawsuits against police and the city.
“Now he might have, after the fact, publicly changed his position, after he got back to the office and everyone said, ‘Mike what the heck did you just say?’ I can’t believe that you believe that,” Ackerson said. “It’s one thing to retract a position, it’s what you say and those are his words.”
And Ackerson said county attorney employees have complained that they have felt their jobs were in jeopardy if they do not donate to O’Connell’s campaigns. Ackerson said, if elected, he will not allow employees to donate to any of his future county attorney campaigns.
In response, O’Connell said he does not pressure employees to donate to his campaign and is “honored” they have enough faith in him to “choose to give.”
“I’m honored that they do that and I’m going to continue to do that if they wish to give,” he said at the Louisville Forum.
The county attorney’s office represents the city in civil litigation, handles traffic cases and prosecutes misdemeanor, juvenile and child support crimes.
Based on campaign contributions and spending, the race is not even close. O’Connell has collected $387,735 and spent $106,995, according to the most recent reports from the Kentucky Registry of Election Finance.
Ackerson, meanwhile, has raised only about $28,000 and spent $6,300.
Through his position on the council, Ackerson is likely more well known than O’Connell’s last primary opponent, Karen Faulkner, whom O’Connell also held a sizable fundraising edge.
Faulkner garnered 45 percent of the vote in 2014. She said at the time that "obviously" a lot of voters "do not affirm his work over the last six years and in fact sought for a change."
As a city council member for a decade, Ackerson arguably has higher name recognition than Faulkner. Ackerson has said O’Connell is “trying to buy this race” and vowed to outwork him by getting out in the community and meeting face to face with voters as much as possible.
“It’s going to be close,” said Ackerson, an attorney who specializes in civil litigation.
In addition, O’Connell has a long history of scuffling with local lawyers and judges. He has been criticized for launching an office traffic school that allows traffic offenders to avoid court costs by taking an online course, with the bulk of the proceeds going to the county attorney’s office.
Other county attorneys across the state run similar programs and O’Connell notes the funding helps the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office and other agencies.
O’Connell, a Louisville native and St. X graduate, has touted his experience: He served as a district court judge from 1980 to 1987 and on the circuit bench from 1987 to 1990. He has run the county attorney’s office – with about 350 employees – for more than a decade now, winning state county attorney of the year award in Kentucky last year.
And he was key in helping to implement a veterans’ treatment court, a restorative justice program in juvenile court that helps victims and defendants work cases out without jail time and ending a practice in which defense attorneys could call judges and get them to set aside arrest warrants without any input from prosecutors.
But Ackerson said the system needs someone from the outside to take a fresh look at issues, including reducing jail overcrowding and “locking people up for stupid reasons.”
“Are things getting better or things getting worse?” Ackerson said, referencing the growing murder rate and drug addiction. “Things are getting worse.”
He also noted inmates are consistently being incarcerated in an illegal 1950s era jail above Louisville Metro Police Headquarters because Metro Corrections is too crowded – at a cost of about $4 million a year.
“What we’re trying is not working,” Ackerson said. “It’s time for new approaches from this office.”
But O’Connell said he deserves another term.
“If someone is doing a good job, dealt with issues, created initiatives, done things that are helpful for the community, then the voters have to judge whether that counts for something,” O’Connell said in an interview with WDRB News. :To just come in and say we need a change … is just bogus."
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