LOUISVILLE, Ky. â€“ A prominent Kentucky banker who is one of the stateâ€™s largest Republican donors urged former Gov. Matt Bevin to pardon convicted killer Patrick Baker months before the outgoing governor issued a controversial last-minute order freeing the man.
Terry Forcht, founder of Corbin-based Forcht Bank, has given more than $1 million to Republican candidates, committees and super PACs over the past decade, state and federal campaign records show.
Forcht hosted a re-election fundraiser for Bevin on March 23 at his home near London, Kentucky, where he raised $33,150. Forcht also gave $100,000 to the Matt Bevin-Jenean Hampton Inaugural Committee in 2015.
Public records reviewed Tuesday by The Courier Journal show the GOP mega-donor lobbied Bevin, a Republican, on behalf of Baker twice: In an August 2018 letter and again in a June 4 note.
“I would like to renew my recommendation for him to receive a Gubernatorial Pardon,” Forcht wrote on June 4. â€œI continue to follow his story and feel he would be a good candidate. I know his family and still feel he has turned his life around.”
Shortly after Forcht prodded the governor to act, former state Rep. Denny Butler, an investigator looking into Baker’s case on Bevin’s behalf, advised the governor that while he believed in Baker’s innocence, it would be inappropriate to issue a pardon at that time.
Despite that finding from Butler in June, Bevin issued Baker’s pardon during his last week in office, writing, â€œPatrick Baker is a man who has made a series of unwise decisions in his adult life.
â€œThe evidence supporting his conviction is sketchy at best. I am not convinced that justice has been served on the death of Donald Mills, nor am I convinced that the evidence has proven the involvement of Patrick Baker as murderer; and I am commuting Mr. Baker’s sentence to time served and providing him with a pardon only for charges associated with this conviction.â€
The Courier Journal reviewed dozens of pages of state documents, correspondence and other public records to better understand Bevinâ€™s decision to pardon Baker. In December 2017, Baker was sentenced to 19 years in prison, convicted of reckless homicide, robbery and impersonating a peace officer when he and two accomplices invaded Donald Mills’ Knox County home.
Prosecutors argued to jurors Baker was the one who shot and killed Mills.
Pardoning Patrick Baker:Former Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin defends controversial pardons
The Courier Journal was the first to report last week Baker’s brother and sister-in-law hosted a political fundraiser for Bevin at their Corbin home on July 26, 2018, where they raised $21,500 to retire debt from the governor’s 2015 campaign.
Members of Baker’s family and other Knox County residents with the same last name donated $9,500 to Bevin that day, with his sister-in-law and father donating $2,000 to Bevin’s re-election campaign in 2019.
Kentucky Registry of Election Finance records show two employees of Forcht Bank also donated to Bevinâ€™s 2015 campaign on the day of the fundraiser at the Baker home.
Numerous state legislators â€“ including Republican stateÂ Senate President Stivers, who represents Knox County â€“ have called for federal and state investigations of the most controversial of Bevin’s hundreds of pardons in his final days.
They are particularly concerned about the timing of campaign contributions and political access to Bevin related to the Baker pardon.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell also lashed out at Bevinâ€™s flurry of pardons and commutations for those convicted of violent crimes, calling them “completely inappropriate.”
â€œI expect (Bevin) has the power to do it, but looking at the examples of people who were incarcerated as the result of heinous crimes, no, I donâ€™t approve of them,â€ McConnell said last week.
Forchtâ€™s support for Bakerâ€™s release was discovered in The Courier Journalâ€™s review of records related to Bakerâ€™s pardon.
He is not new to Kentuckyâ€™s GOP politics.
In March 2019, during Kentucky’s hotly contested gubernatorial race between incumbent Bevin and, ultimately, Democratic Attorney General Andy Beshear, Forcht doled out $150,000 to the Republican Governor’s Association. That group aired numerous ads supporting Bevin, who lost the November election by about 5,000 votes to Beshear.
Forcht ended his June 4 letter to Bevin by asking the governor to call him on his cellphone if he needed any further information.
Forcht’s assistant emailed a copy of the letter on June 5 to Bevin’s chief of staff, who then forwarded it to three attorneys in the governor’s office, records show.
State records show the Bevin administration was in constant conversation with Butler months ahead of the Baker pardon. Butler is a former Louisville police detective who has challenged local law enforcement and prosecutors in a number wrongful conviction cases in recent years.
In a June 19 email to three members of Bevinâ€™s staff, Butler slammed Beshear’s office for failing to correspond with him about starting a conviction integrity unit to look into the Baker case and others.
He told Bevin’s general counsel and other administration officials he believed Baker was innocent and “the true killer could be identified and held accountable.”
“The Patrick Baker case came to my attention earlier this year through the governor,” Butler said in the email.
Butler provided administration officials with a draft letter written in the governor’s words asking Beshear to launch an investigation into Baker’s case, along with the case of Irvin Edge, who was convicted of murder for hiring a hit man to kill his business partner in 1991.
But Butler didn’t think a pardon was warranted until further investigation could be done.
“In response to the request for pardons by Mr. Edge and Mr. Baker, and after a comprehensive review by my administration, a pardon would not be the appropriate decision in either case,” the letter drafted by Butler in the governor’s name said.
Crystal Staley, a spokeswoman for Gov. Andy Beshear who worked as the chief communications official when he was attorney general, told The Courier Journal on Tuesday their office never received such a letter from the Bevin administration.
She said there is no signed copy in the governor’s office files, nor was there any email suggesting the letter was ever sent.
“We are not aware of any conviction integrity unit in Kentucky, and we did not receive a request to investigate the Edge and Baker convictions,” Staley said.
Butler, who Bevin appointed commissioner of the Department of Juvenile Justice in August 2019, did not return a call for comment on Tuesday.
Ultimately, Bevin pardoned Edge and Baker.
Bevin told The Courier Journal in a lengthy interview on Saturday that he welcomes a federal investigation.
Bevin said he is not only convinced of the innocence of Baker and others he pardoned, but suggested that there was corruption among law enforcement that led to wrongful convictions in this case and others.
“The way in which these things have gone down has been a remarkable miscarriage of justice,” Bevin said, adding that he looked at Bakerâ€™s case â€œfor months and monthsâ€ and had a lot of conversations about his conviction.
Bevin and attorneys for Baker have both cited eyewitness accounts that have the description of the killerâ€™s physical appearance as different than Baker. His attorneys have also suggested that Kentucky State Police troopers wrongly fingered Baker as the shooter, citing lawsuits against two of officers leading the case that accused them of framing four innocent people with crimes.
The first letter sent to Bevin pleading for a pardon of Baker was from his mother, Jackie Baker, in March 2018. His father, John Baker, followed up with a letter in June.
In the first few days of July 2018, seven additional letters were sent to Bevin asking for a pardon, including letters from his friends, pastor, fiancÃ©e and Baker himself.
â€œI am currently at the Clay County Detention Center, serving a 19-year sentence in which I was wrongfully convicted,â€ Baker told Bevin.
â€œThe reason for this letter is to ask you to show mercy on my family and I and issue me a pardon. Iâ€™ve never been a threat to society. Iâ€™m 40 years old and have worked, paid taxes and been a productive citizen.â€
On July 4, the formal pardon application was filed with the governorâ€™s office.
Three weeks later, Bevin attended the campaign fundraiser at the Corbin home of Eric and Kathryn Baker.
In his interview with The Courier Journal, Bevin acknowledged speaking to Eric Baker, but said he couldn’t remember if he ever talked to him about a pardon for his brother.
A month after the fundraiser, Forcht sent his first letter to the governor mentioning Patrick Baker, along with another person he wanted Bevin to consider for a pardon.
Forcht wrote that he had â€œpersonal knowledge of both familiesâ€ and could attest that both individuals had â€œturned their life around.â€
Contributing: Former Courier Journal reporter Tom Loftus; follow Joe Sonka on Twitter:@joesonka.