Kentucky Gov. Ernie Fletcher pleaded not guilty on Friday to charges that he was involved in an illegal scheme to hire political allies for merit-based state jobs.

Fletcher, the first Republican to lead Kentucky in more than three decades, entered the pleas through a lawyer in Franklin County District Court in Frankfort, court officials said.

He was indicted last month by a grand jury on three misdemeanor counts — official misconduct, which carries a possible one-year sentence, and conspiracy and violating a prohibition against political discrimination, which each carry six-month penalties.

While two of the three charges also stipulate removal from state office upon conviction, most legal observers say that would not likely apply to the governor, whose removal is subject to impeachment proceedings spelled out in the state constitution.

Friday’s arraignment follows a year of controversy stemming from the allegations that Republicans violated state law by ignoring merit and hiring political supporters for civil service jobs.

At a state party meeting in Louisville last weekend, the physician and former U.S. congressman said he still planned to be a candidate for re-election in 2007.

After more than a dozen indictments of current and former members of his administration, Fletcher announced a blanket pardon last year that ended investigation into the alleged wrongdoing.

In announcing the pardon, which was upheld in a decision by the Kentucky Supreme Court last month, Fletcher specifically exempted himself, thus opening the way for his own indictment.