Metro Council reluctant to file ethics complaint against Piagentini
Louisville Metro Council will hire an attorney to decide if Council Member Anthony Piagentini violated ethics rules because no council member wanted to file a formal complaint against him.
Two weeks ago, Louisville Metro Council members unanimously supported a call for the city’s ethics commission to review Republican Council Member Anthony Piagentini’s involvement in a $40 million federal COVID-19 relief grant. But now no one wants to sign the form to start the process.
Instead, the council will hire an outside attorney to determine if Piagentini potentially violated local ethics laws or federal spending policies, Council President Markus Winkler, a Democrat from District 17, said Thursday.
The outcome of that investigation will likely determine if the council files a formal complaint with the ethics commission, the agency tasked with enforcing the city’s ethics code which bars council members from using their position for unfair gain.
“It is my hope that he did not break the law and that the investigation will validate that,” Winkler said. “But I do think it is important, both for compliance with the [U.S. Department of the Treasury] guidelines and lest there be an insinuation that money has been steered inappropriately.”
This is the latest development in the Metro Council’s push for a review of Piagentini’s role in the federal spending measure.
How we got here
It started two weeks ago when KyCIR reported that the District 19 Republican co-sponsored a $40 million American Rescue Plan funding allocation, voted to support it in committee and then started negotiating a job with the nonprofit that got the money. Piagentini signed on to work with the group — the Louisville Healthcare CEO Council — the day after the full council approved the plan.
Piagentini said he did nothing wrong. He did not immediately respond to a request for this report.
His council colleagues on Feb. 16 requested the ethics commission review the matter. The resolution got unanimous approval, but it did neither of the two things the ethics commission is charged with: reviewing the potential for future actions to violate ethics laws, and investigating formal complaints.
As a remedy, Metro Council President Markus Winkler filed another measure this week that, if approved, would allow him or District 14 Council Member Cindi Fowler, the chair of the council’s government oversight, audit and appointment committee, to send a formal complaint to the commission. Neither Winkler nor Fowler say they’re ready to do that.
The issue is the form the ethics commission requires with a complaint, Winkler said. The person that signs the document must effectively point the finger at a peer, accuse them of breaking the law, and do so under oath — something no one on the council will do.
The saga has exposed a missing link in the oversight apparatus of local government and left some lawmakers confused.
Winkler said the council will likely now work to create a “middle ground” for ethics complaints — an avenue for people to spark a formal investigation without accusing someone else of breaking the law, which doesn’t currently exist.
In the meantime, the outside attorney review could lay the groundwork for a formal complaint.
Steve Haag, the minority Republican caucus director, said he supports hiring an outside attorney.
"We're happy to do it," he said
Such a review is not unusual for the Metro Council. Lawmakers hired outside attorneys to review sexual misconduct allegations within the Transit Authority of River City in 2020 and last year outsourced a review of the beleaguered Metro Corrections.
A Divided Caucus
The decision to delay the formal complaint against Piagentini headlined Thursday’s meeting of the council’s majority Democratic caucus.
Council member Tammy Hawkins, a District 1 Democrat, said she was blown away and wondered if council members were “tippy-toeing” around Piagentini.
“Think if the shoe was on the other foot,” she said.
Council member Barbara Shanklin, a District 2 Democrat, was found guilty of ethics violations in 2013 and the ethics commission recommended she be removed from council. She prevailed and remained in her seat. On Thursday she said if council leaders had the initiative to write and vote on a resolution two weeks ago raising the issue, they should be bold enough to follow through and file the complaint.
“If you believe he did nothing wrong, then why file the resolution,” she said.
Fowler, a District 14 Democrat, said the evidence against Piagentini is compelling, but not enough to spur her to sign the sworn complaint form.
Metro Council member Rick Blackwell, a District 12 Democrat, said the council failed to do its homework before pursuing an ethics commission review of Piagentini, and the body should have known what the process actually required.
“It’s on us,” he said.
Metro Council member Paula McCraney, a District 7 Democrat and majority caucus chair, said there are several council members who’d likely be willing to sign the form — herself included — but don’t want to divide the caucus.
“It's believed that a violation of ethics occurred,” she said. “From what I've heard, and what I've listened to others say.”
This story has been updated with additional information.