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Text messages show Kentuckians with access to public figures got special attention on unemployment claims

Officials say it’s commonplace to forward constituents’ issues, but the optics could be damaging nonetheless.
Updated: Mar. 26, 2021 at 6:43 PM EDT
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FRANKFORT, Ky. (FOX19) - Unemployed Kentuckians with access to government officials have been able to draw special attention to their unemployment claims, a FOX19 NOW investigation finds.

It’s been commonplace throughout the pandemic for media outlets, including FOX19, to notify Kentucky Career Center personnel and even governor himself of specific claims from individual claimants who have reached out about their issues.

Gov. Andy Beshear says it’s much the same in daily life, referencing endless emails, phone calls and social media messages as well as frequent interactions walking down the street. He argues it’s tantamount to a lawmaker helping his or her constituents, in this case by filling out a particular form for KYCC personnel to check on when they can.

“Basically what I’ve done is, anyone who has reached out to me, I’ve done what I can to help,” Beshear said.

But in a pandemic year characterized by an overburdened unemployment system in which thousands of claims remain unresolved, the optics of privileged access to government officials are potentially damaging.

It’s especially true when that access appears as a personal favor.

In April 2020, just as the Kentucky Unemployment Insurance Office was getting buried in an unprecedented amount of benefits requests, Lt. Gov. Jacqueline Coleman reached out to then-Executive Director of Unemployment Insurance Muncie McNamara asking for special attention to certain claims.

FOX19 NOW Investigates has obtained 71 pages of text messages to McNamara’s phone proving the correspondence. The messages also involve McNamara’s direct superior, Marty Hammons.

At 3:58 p.m. on April 5, 2020, Coleman messaged McNamara and Hammons:

“Hey guys! I need someone to reach out to a couple of people. The first, does my hair (so we obviously need to take are of her.) Here are her messages and contact info.”

A second message from Coleman one day later reads:

“Second, here is a friend of a friend. I’ll send her number when I get it.”

Both McNamera and Hammons responded. McNamera texted back revealing he was looking into it, saying in part, “It’s my job. I am glad to do it. It’s especially my job to make you look good. So I’ll take care of this stuff if you send me names.”

The text messages reveal at least four occasions where special attention was requested and given.

The issue of special attention with privileged access is stark in the context of an unemployment system that could not keep up with the number of claims filed.

According to WAVE3, our sister station in Louisville, tens of thousands of claims filed early in the pandemic remained unprocessed into October 2020, and more than 400,000 emails to the unemployment office remained unread as of Nov. 9, 2020.

Meanwhile, the state’s phone banks have been swamped, and many Kentuckians with unresolved unemployment claims have difficulty getting appointments.

“I can understand, you know, frustration only grows when there’s, you know, perceptions that they’re not getting the attention that they need,” Beshear said in response to the investigation. “And if you haven’t been helped, you’re not getting the attention that you need. So we need to continue to push hard until absolutely everybody gets up.”

On the issue of Coleman’s personal requests, the governor said, “If you want to ask about people’s personal text messages, you’ll need to talk to them.”

Kentucky Representative Rachel Roberts (D-Campbell County) says public figures are trying to do everything they can to help jobless residents all across the state.

“It doesn’t sound wildly different than what I’ve done, which is, anyone who reaches out to me, I pass along,” Roberts said.

The state rep said she isn’t familiar with the specifics of Coleman’s requests but adds it’s similar to what legislators are dealing with on a daily basis.

“People we know, people we don’t know, people who are our constituents, who aren’t our constituents, they get our emails, our phone numbers, and they rightfully reach out to us,” she said.

Roberts has been working on unemployment for months. She was instrumental in brining the in-person unemployment office to Northern Kentucky last summer. She says the systemic problems still need to be addressed.

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