LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Gov. Steve Beshear's administration agreed Wednesday to pay a former state mine regulator $270,000 to settle a wrongful termination case that raised questions about the coal industry's influence within the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet.
Ron Mills, former director of mine permits for the state agency, alleged in a lawsuit that he was fired in November 2009 for contesting illegal coal mining practices. He later filed the lawsuit saying he was wrongly terminated.
A settlement agreement obtained by The Associated Press Wednesday provides few details other than the amount of money Mills and his attorney, Bernard Pafunda, will receive. The settlement agreement requires that details about the negotiations that resolved the case would remain confidential.
Mills opposed a state policy that grants mining permits to coal operators before they had obtained rights to enter mine property from all property owners on the permit. He said the policy was illegal and stopped it in August 2008 before it was reinstated the next year.
Beshear spokeswoman Kerri Richardson declined to comment, citing a confidentiality clause in the settlement agreement.
The Energy and Environment Cabinet released the settlement agreement even though it contained the confidentiality clause requiring that the "agreement and the term hereof, as well as the offers, comments, events and results occurring during the settlement negotiations leading to this settlement are and shall remain strictly confidential."
The settlement sparked renewed criticism from government watchdogs, including mine safety advocate Tony Oppegard, who said the case shows that the coal industry "wields an undue amount of influence" over state government in Kentucky.
"The agreement says there's no admission of liability, so, legally, the state isn't admitting they fired him unlawfully," Oppegard said. "But what I can say is that it's a shame when an employee gets fired by the state for doing his job in a conscientious manner, which I believe is what happened here."
Richard Beliles, head of the government watchdog group Common Cause of Kentucky, said the case appears to have revealed a breakdown in the regulatory process.
"The government in this case was not working as it was supposed to do, but he evidently was working as he was supposed to do," Beliles said.
Associated Press correspondent Roger Alford in Frankfort contributed to this report.