Accusations, hindsight and a Christmas Card: Day one of ethics trial for Louisville Metro Council's top Republican
Council member Anthony Piagentini faces seven counts of breaking local ethics laws. His public trial started today.
Lawyers kicked-off Monday's ethics trial by presenting dueling narratives about Piagentini's support for a $40 million COVID-19 relief grant for a nonprofit that now employs him.
The prosecution, led by attorneys Kent Wicker and ethics commission member Robert Boyd, has accused Piagentini of negotiating a job with the Louisville Healthcare CEO Council while also supporting their proposal to train entry-level healthcare workers and build an “innovation corridor” in the Russell neighborhood. Metro Council awarded the American Rescue Plan Act funding to the CEO Council last December.
In opening arguments, Wicker said the public gives elected officials “enormous power to make our laws and spend our money.”
“What we ask in return is that they act solely in our interest, not theirs,” Wicker said. “We have enacted rules to make sure they do that, but what you are going to hear today is that Mr. Piagentini chose to ignore the rules. He chose to pretend that the rules didn’t apply to him.”
Piagentini’s lawyer said the allegations that the District 19 representative used his office to benefit himselfare “wild conspiracy theories.” J. Brooken Smith, who’s representing Piagentini, said that while the timing of the job offer was “not ideal,” Piagentini stopped lobbying for the grant to go to the CEO Council once he knew there was a serious job offer.
Smith said Piagentini would have advocated for the grant whether a job opportunity came from it or not.
“Councilman Piagentini supported the proposal for one reason and one reason alone: It was the right thing to do for the community,” he said.
Smith acknowledged that Piagentini did not update his financial disclosures within 30 days, as is required of Metro Council members.
Piagentini is facing seven ethics charges, which were released in detail at the start of the trial:
- Count 1: Improperly soliciting a promise of employment or a thing of value
- Count 2: Use of his official position to obtain “unwarranted privileges or advantages” when he secured a job with the CEO Council
- Count 3: Impairment of objectivity due to a private or financial interest
- Count 4: Failing to disqualify himself from a matter before Metro Council where he had a private or financial interest
- Count 5: Failure to disclose a financial interest
- Count 6: Failure to update his financial disclosure forms
- Count 7: Use of his official position to obtain “unwarranted privileges or advantages” when he got a free ticket to a CEO Council event at Churchill Downs
The morning session
The Ethics Commission is acting as judge and jury in this case and will ultimately decide whether there is clear and convincing evidence that Piagentini violated the city’s Ethics Code. The Metro Council will ultimately decide what, if any, discipline Piagentini will face — up to removal from office.
Two witnesses were called to testify Monday morning, Margaret Handmaker and Grace Simrall.
Handmaker was hired by former Mayor Greg Fischer’s administration to oversee how Louisville would spend $388 million in COVID-19 relief. She worked closely with Piagentini and Metro Council President Markus Winkler. The two representatives headed the Metro Council committee that was responsible for picking which of the workforce projects would get funded with the federal COVID-19 relief money.
Handmaker told the Ethics Commission that a smaller, $9 million version of the Healthcare CEO Council project was originally submitted to the committee. Of the 30 proposals considered, Handmaker’s team scored the CEO Council’s second to last.
She said the score reflected concerns about their ability to deliver on the project.
“They got a low score because they were competing with groups that were already working in the workforce business and were ready to go,” she said.
At the time, Handmaker said the CEO Council’s budget was very small and they only had a handful of people on staff. She said Piagentini and Winkler decided on their own to fund a scaled-up version of the CEO Council’s project.
Handmaker said if she knew Piagentini was trying to direct funding to a company that he was also negotiating a job with, then she would have had an obligation to report it to Louisville Metro officials.
Simrall, who was the city’s Chief of Civic Innovation and Technology until earlier this year, also explained the process for selecting a project for funding using federal COVID-19 relief.
Asked by prosecutors if she would have filed an ethics complaint against Piagentini if Fields hadn’t, she said: “If I didn’t do it, someone should have.”
The afternoon session
Piagentini abstained from the final vote in December 2022, when the project came up for a final vote with the full Metro Council.
At the time, he said he had a potential conflict of interest, but he didn’t say he’d be taking a job with the CEO Council.
If he did, the revelation would have led to more questions, said Bill Hollander, a former Metro Council Democrat from District 9.
Hollander, who served as chair of the council’s budget committee, said the legislators could have called a time-out to ask the questions that have come up since KyCIRs first report in February.
“We could’ve tabled this ordinance and brought it up at the next meeting and tried to figure out what exactly had occurred here, and when,” he said.
Instead, the council asked no questions and unanimously approved the project.
Hollander said he didn’t find out Piagentini had taken a job with the group until he read the Republican council member’s Christmas card.
Council member Cindi Fowler, a District 14 Democrat, was the last witness of the day for the prosecution. She said if Piagentini had disclosed he was taking a job with the CEO Council “it could have derailed the whole thing.”
“When people say they have a conflict of interest, we all assume it’s above board,” she said. “Had we known he was going to get a job the next day, or offered a job the next day, there’d been a whole lot more questions at that meeting.”
The ethics trial will continue on Tuesday.
This story has been updated.