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Judge rejects Louisville lawmaker’s plea for privacy in ethics probe

Republican Metro Council member Anthony Piagentini attends a hearing in Jefferson Circuit Court.
Jacob Ryan
/
LPM
Republican Metro Council member Anthony Piagentini attends a hearing in Jefferson Circuit Court.

Metro Council member Anthony Piagentini claimed the city’s ethics commission violated state and local laws by disclosing his response to a complaint accusing him of ethics violations. A county judge disagreed.

The Louisville Metro Ethics Commission did not violate any laws and is free to disclose certain records related to the investigation of Republican council member Anthony Piagentini, according to a ruling issued Monday by Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Tracy E. Davis.

Piagentini filed a lawsuit in circuit court in early May asking the court to issue a temporary injunction that would block the ethics commission from releasing any records related to the inquiry into his actions.

Piagentini has been under investigation by the ethics commission since March for possible ethics violations related to his assistance securing a $40 million COVID-19 relief grant for the Louisville Healthcare CEO Council, a collective of healthcare industry CEOs. The day after the Metro Council approved the spending measure, Piagentini took a consulting job with the group.

The city’s ethics ordinance prohibits council members from using their official position for “unwarranted” gain.

Piagentini said he’d done nothing wrong.

In the lawsuit, he claimed the ethics commission violated local ordinances and state open records laws when the agency made public his response to the complaint filed against him. The agency provided the 87-page document to the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting in response to an open records request. A copy also was provided to Kevin Fields, the person who filed the formal complaint against Piagentini.

Fields is the chief executive officer of the nonprofit Louisville Central Community Center, Inc. He filed the complaint against Piagentini in March after KyCIR first revealed a potential conflict of interest related to the council member’s involvement with the grant. Fields also had applied for the COVID-19 relief grant that Piagentini helped steer to the Louisville Healthcare CEO Council. In a March interview, Fields said that he suspects Piagentini broke the rules when he helped tip the scales in the healthcare council’s favor.

Piagentini said his response to Fields’ complaint should have never been disclosed because it included private and proprietary information — specifically, the salary the healthcare council is paying him. Piagentini signed a one-year contract with the group for $240,000.

Judge Davis determined the public interest in the case outweighs whatever privacy interest Piagentini claims.

“It is curious that a party aggrieved by an alleged improper disclosure under the [open records act] would resort to a circuit court action, itself a public proceeding,” Davis wrote in the order filed with the court late Monday afternoon.

Davis ruled the ethics commission must adhere to Kentucky’s open records laws, which states that free and open examination of public records is in the public interest — even though such examination may cause inconvenience or embarrassment to public officials.

The commission can only keep private certain records obtained in the course of its investigations. Other procedural records — like complaints, responses, pleadings and motions — are subject to disclosure, Davis said.

Records compiled through the investigative process — such as subpoenas, responses to subpoenas, reports and recommendations from investigators — can be disclosed at the conclusion of an ethics commission review, she added.

Piagentini did not immediately respond to a request for comment for this report.

Todd Lewis, general counsel for the ethics commission, had asked the judge to dismiss the case. Although she declined, he said he appreciates the judge’s consideration of the issues.

“And we appreciate that she largely affirmed the procedures of the ethics commission,” he said.

The case highlights an extremely rare instance of a challenge to the state's open records laws being prompted by the release of records, said Amye Bensenhaver, co-founder of the Kentucky Open Government Coalition.

More often, she said such challenges are the result of government agencies refusing to provide public records.

Jacob Ryan is the managing editor of the Kentucky Center for Investigative reporting. He's an award-winning investigative reporter who joined LPM in 2014. Email Jacob at jryan@lpm.org.