Republican Commonwealth’s Attorney candidates debate

Published 12:08 pm Tuesday, May 14, 2024

The Republican candidates for Bell County Commonwealth’s Attorney, incumbent Lisa Fugate and challenger Mike Taylor,  faced off in a debate Thursday evening moderated by Brian O’Brien at the Bell Theater in Pineville.

Taylor won a coin toss and was the first candidate to speak. He introduced himself as a practicing attorney in Middlesboro.

“I started straight out of law school in 1988 and have practiced in Bell County for the entire 35 years of my career,” he said. “Throughout that time I have focused my practice on helping people.”

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Taylor said he has handled more than 5,000 Social Security disability and SSI cases as well as practicing criminal law. In 2017 he won the Kentucky Bar Association’s Donated Legal Services Award for representing 45 people that had been defrauded by the Eric C. Conn Social Security scandal.

“I have spent my entire career basically helping people. That’s what I think is my calling, that’s my professional choice,” he said. “And that’s what I want to bring to this office. There is a huge mess that has been here for quite some time and it needs to be taken care of. It’s costing tax payers hundreds of thousands of dollars every year and it’s my intention to tackle this and get this under control.”

Fugate introduced herself as the current Commonwealth’s Attorney. She has been and attorney since 2009 and has worked in the Commonwealth’s office since 2015.

“I became assistant that year when the prior Commonwealth (Attorney) Karen Greene Blondell offered me the position and I worked with her until 2020 when she retired. At that time I was appointed by the governor to take her position so I have been in the Commonwealth’s office for a little over nine years now as prosecutor,” she said. “I am a Bell County native. I’m from Arjay so I’m an Arjay girl and I’m proud of it.”

Fugate has three children and says she has always been tough on crime because of them.

“My goal as Commonwealth has always been to keep this county safe because my babies are here. I chose to bring my babies back to this county,” she said. “I refuse to let someone offer them drugs, I refuse to let someone make them become a victim of crime. That’s why I take a hard stance against crime and why I will always take that hard stance as long as I’m Commonwealth’s Attorney.”

When asked about reducing Bell County’s recidivism rate, Taylor said he was in favor of using Drug Court and presumptive probation in cases of victimless crime.

“These are tools available to prosecutors to help people who need help in cases of victimless crimes. There’s not a single person in this room that doesn’t have a family member that has been affected by the drug problem,” he said. “We have people that are affected by possession cases, these are the people we need to get help for. The drug dealers need to go to prison. People who commit violent crimes need to go to prison. That’s what prisons are for.”

He said the problem right now is that the Bell County Jail is currently at three times its capacity.

“It’s stayed that way for multiple years and it’s only getting worse. Bell County taxpayers, unbudgeted, are spending more than $700,000 a year just to house Bell County inmates in other jails,” Taylor said.. “This is money we can’t get back and it isn’t helping us whatsoever. This is money that could be building roads, building bridges, helping with other community projects. Instead, we’re cramming the jails full of people on victimless crimes. These are the things that need to be addressed.”

Fugate said that during her time as Commonwealth’s Attorney there have been a lower number of felony cases in Bell County and that has led to a lower recidivism rate.

“ In terms of bond and the jail, that’s really not a Commonwealth’s Attorney problem. The Commonwealth’s Attorney has no control over bond, ultimately it’s the judge who decides that,” she said. “In my opinion, you do a crime you know you’re going to jail. You better have your bail money ready or you’re going to be sitting in that jail. That’s where you belong if you commit a crime.”

She said there were programs to offer first-time offenders that could keep them out of jail, the problem is that many people facing drug problems don’t want to use those programs.


“The issue though, is that over 90 percent of crime in Bell County can be traced back to being drug related. Sex crimes- drug related, Murders-drug related, Drug trafficking- obviously drug related. Almost every crime is drug related and they still don’t deserve to be out of prison or out of jail because, ultimately, they knew what they were doing,” Fugate said. “You cannot force them into (drug court, a diversion program or into drug treatment)— you can offer it but you cannot make them walk that road. If they don’t want help they don’t care what you offer them.”

The candidates were also asked what they felt was the most critical issue facing the Commonwealth Attorney’s office.

Taylor said it was the backlog of cases that continues to grow.

“Right now, today, we have 1,043 unresolved felonies in Bell County. Some of them go back as far as 19 years, most of them are in the last four or five years, but that number is staggering,” he said. “It is going to be my and my team’s number one goal to bring these people in to the courthouse — we’re not going to be continuing these cases — we are going to work on these cases and we’re going to get them done. If we don’t get plea agreements then we’re going to set these things for trial. When we convict four, five, six or ten of them word gets out and they figure out going to trial is not the way to go. That’s the way to get it done.”

Fugate said it the biggest issue was the overall caseload.

“The most critical issue is the case load. Not because of the number of 1,043 cases you claim to be backlogged, but because of the number of individuals out here committing felonies. The statue says you shall remit them to the grand jury so you have to prosecute those cases or you’re not doing your job,” she said. “We now have a full-time assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney and a full-time paralegal and I’ve applied to add a second assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney that I’m very hopeful we will get approved for. Many of that number of backlogged cases are probably from the ‘80s and ‘90 and are bench warrants. I’m not dismissing those just because they ran to another state. I refuse.”

County Clerk Debbie Gambrel spoke prior to the debate to encourage everyone to get out and vote in the May Primary. She said that while the deadline has passed to request a mail-in ballot, anyone who has received one has until Election Day, May 21, to drop it in one of the drop boxes at either the Clerks Office at the old Courthouse or the Clerk’s Office in Middlesboro on US 25E.

“Excused absentee voting started on Friday and was set to run through Wednesday. Anyone can early vote on Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the Bell County Courthouse or the Middlesboro Community Center,” Gambrel said. “Of course on Election Day you vote at your home precinct from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.”