Louisville council member sues city agency investigating him for alleged ethics violations
Council Republican Anthony Piagentini claims the Louisville Metro Ethics Commission violated state law by releasing records that he says should have been kept confidential.
Piagentini’s lawyer said in a court filing that the city’s ethics commission “eviscerated [his] expectation to a confidential and fair process” by disclosing his response to the complaint against him. He is accused of having violated the city’s ethics laws when he helped a local nonprofit get a $40 million COVID-19 relief grant then took a job with the group.
The city’s ethics commission is investigating Piagentini’s role in the grant to the Louisville Healthcare CEO Council, which local legislators approved late last year. He did not cast a vote when the item was up for final approval.
Piagentini, who represents District 19 in east Louisville, argues city law requires officials to keep confidential all records related to the investigation until a final determination is made, according to the lawsuit filed earlier this week in Jefferson Circuit Court.
He says the ethics commission violated that law when they fulfilled open records requests for a copy of his 87-page response last month. In that document, Piagentini claims he acted appropriately because he didn’t know the nonprofit was going to offer him a job. He said he learned about their interest in hiring him when he received an unsolicited non-disclosure agreement. The group sent it hours before he voted on the matter at the council’s budget committee. He claims he didn’t read the NDA until the morning after the vote, and that is when he began negotiating the job.
Piagentini criticized media coverage of the allegations against him, as well as of his defense. The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting covered the details of his response to the ethics commission last month.
Now, Piagentini wants a judge to rule that the ethics commission violated its duty to keep the records confidential. He wants an injunction that would prevent public disclosure of any records related to the investigation.
Todd Lewis, counsel for the ethics commission, declined to comment on the pending litigation.
Piagentini’s lawsuit is an unprecedented attempt to claim public records were wrongly released and it has little chance of success, said Amye Bensenhaver, cofounder of the Kentucky Open Government Coalition.
She said Piagentini is trying to claim the ethics commission violated his rights by disclosing the records. No court has ever found that sort of violation happened in the nearly 50 years the state’s open records law has been in existence, she said.
“You cannot sue for disclosure of records once those records have been disclosed,” she said. “There's no mechanism for challenging the disclosure of public records.”
She said he might have had a chance to keep the records private if he made the argument prior to their release — but he didn’t. And the local ordinance that requires keeping ethics commission records confidential until a final determination is made cannot overrule the state’s open records law, which requires the release of public records with few exceptions, she said.
“The bottom line is, in general, disclosure of public records under the open records law doesn't violate the open records law,” she said. “Even under the worst of circumstances, if an agency makes an inadvertent disclosure, there's no mechanism for clawback.”
Piagentini also claims the ethics commission failed to properly notify him within 24 hours of a special meeting late last month.
Ethics commission officials notified Piagentini’s attorney via email five days before the meeting that the commission would meet to discuss the investigation, but they provided no agenda, according to the suit filed by J. Brooken Smith, Piagentini’s attorney. This, Smith claims, is a violation of the state’s open meetings law.
Bensenhaver said that, too, is a tough argument to win.
“It’s not real solid legal grounds,” she said.
She said the state’s open meetings law only requires an agency to notify members of the media and the public agency, not individuals, of a special meeting and its agenda.
Piagentini’s attorney, J. Brooken Smith, did not return a request for a comment.