Council member pushed $40 million COVID-19 relief grant for prospective employer
A Louisville Metro Council member helped a local nonprofit get a $40 million COVID-19 relief grant. Then, the group gave him a job.
Louisville Metro Council member Anthony Piagentini gushed at an early November 2022 budget committee meeting about a local nonprofit’s proposal to boost the city’s health care workforce.
The group — the Louisville Healthcare CEO Council — wanted $40 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds to train hundreds of entry level workers for local companies and build an “innovation corridor” in the Russell neighborhood.
“This will contribute and support a lot of what council members here have fought for,” said Piagentini, a Republican representing District 19, which includes Middletown.
That was two weeks before he voted to advance the proposal to the full council as part of an ordinance he had co-sponsored. The council eventually voted in favor of granting the money to the Healthcare CEO Council, a group of powerful executives that formed in 2017 to lobby support for the health care industry. But reporting by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting raises questions about a potential conflict of interest stemming from Piagentini’s ties to the organization and his vocal support of its proposal.
KyCIR found that while Piagentini abstained from that final vote on Dec. 1 and removed himself as a co-sponsor moments before it passed, he started working for the organization a day after the council approved the funds. Our reporting also found that he was considering a job offer from the group as their proposal was moving through city government – something other council members said they were unaware of at the time.
Piagentini said he asked the city’s ethics commission to review the potential conflict of interest after KyCIR started reporting on it and is still waiting for their take on things. But he denies that he violated any ethics rules.
“There was zero quid pro quo here. I did this by the book,” he said in an interview on Monday.
Council rules mandate that meeting minutes include the “interest and reasons for an abstention” in verbatim. But the Dec. 1 council meeting minutes only state that Piagentini “needed to be removed as a sponsor and would be abstaining due to a potential conflict of interest with his business.”
Piagentini told KyCIR he didn’t think he needed to provide any more detail.
“If that's what the rules required, I would have gladly done it. Nobody corrected me at the time,” he said.
Tammy York Day, the Healthcare CEO Council’s president, said she doesn’t see any conflict of interest because Piagentini did not consult on the project the group pitched to Metro Council and his work so far has focused on state government affairs.
"I can’t control people’s perception,” she said.
The Louisville Metro Government ethics code bars council members from using their official position to secure unwarranted privileges or advantages for anyone. The ethics code defines a conflict of interest as any action, decision or recommendation by a Metro official acting in their official capacity that would benefit the financial or private interests of them or any of their family members.
Metro Council members can be removed by their colleagues from office for “misconduct, incapacity, or willful neglect in the performance of the official duties,” according to the council’s rules.
At least five members have to swear under oath that a colleague has engaged in such behavior to initiate removal proceedings. A two-thirds majority of the 26-member council must vote to oust a member, and anyone removed from the council can appeal to circuit court.
While Metro Council President Markus Winkler, a Democrat representing Anchorage and other small cities in District 17, said he doesn’t know all the facts — like when Piagentini started working with the Healthcare CEO Council and what he did for the group — he said problems can arise anytime a council member is engaged with and advocating for an organization doing business with the city.
“It has the potential to be a big deal,” he said.
Piagentini: I should have been ‘more proactive’
Louisville Metro Government has received $388 million in federal American Rescue Plan funding intended to help cities replace revenue lost during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the past two years, Metro Council has allocated most all the funds to city agencies and private groups for an array of capital projects and social programming geared towards affordable housing, public safety, workforce development and more.
The Healthcare CEO Council’s $40 million workforce development proposal is one of the biggest recipients of ARP funds along with an initiative to boost affordable housing.
The CEO Council’s proposed spending plan was filed with the council in late October.
Piagentini and Winkler co-sponsored an ordinance that aimed to fund the proposal. They touted the project as one with potential to transform Louisville by creating hundreds of jobs and vaulting Louisville’s innovation sector to new heights.
Piagentini said at a Nov. 3 budget committee meeting that the CEO Council’s idea stood out from other workforce development program proposals because it was sustainable and promised tangible impact for the city’s economy.
“By far, nothing came close,” he said.
The committee voted to approve the measure two weeks later. After that meeting, Piagentini said, the Louisville Healthcare CEO Council sent him a non-disclosure agreement and he started negotiating a consulting job with the group.
He said this week that officials at the organization told him they were impressed with his background; he’s worked in the healthcare industry for companies on “policy work and innovation work” for 20 years, most recently as senior director of provider relations for WellCare of Kentucky, a corporation that provides government-sponsored managed care services primarily through Medicaid.
Piagentini declined to say how much he’s being paid by the CEO Council.
Winkler said he didn’t know that Piagentini was considering a job with the Healthcare CEO Council as local legislators were considering the spending measure. The first time Winkler heard Piagentini was working for the organization was a few weeks ago, in a meeting with Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg’s staff, he said.
Winkler said he asked the Jefferson County Attorney’s office the next day what should happen if there is an allegation about a potential conflict of interest. He also said he encouraged Piagentini to get the Louisville Metro Ethics Commission’s opinion on whether he violated any policies.
On Wednesday, Piagentini told KyCIR that he’s asked the ethics commission to review his involvement with the $40 million grant and is seeking the commission’s guidance about how he should handle things in the future if business tied to the Healthcare CEO Council, its board members or affiliate organizations comes up at Metro Council.
“I want to make sure they've weighed in before we have to ask the question,” he said.
He also said his staff is in the process of updating his financial disclosure forms, which require council members to detail certain business interests and income sources. New forms introduced last year created confusion among officials, many of whom left information off forms or didn’t file disclosures at all.
While he maintains that he didn’t violate any ethics rules, Piagentini acknowledged he should have “been more proactive” about seeking the ethics commission’s opinion.
Louisville Metro Council member Paula McCraney, a District 7 Democrat and majority caucus chair, said Wednesday she’s eager to hear what the ethics commission decides.
She said Piagentini told her there won’t be an issue, but the details of his relationship with the Healthcare CEO Council surprised McCraney.
“Had we known he was going to work for them we would have been questioning that,” she said. “If he is absolutely without conflict, that should be totally backed up by any type of investigation.”
The status of the commission’s inquiry is unclear, despite Piagentini’s claim that he reached out to them about the situation. On Tuesday, commission chair Delores Pregliasco said she did not know about any formal request related to any conflict of interest concern with Piagentini.
“I know nothing,” she said.