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Decision nears in ethics trial for top Louisville Metro Council Republican

Metro Council member Anthony Piagentini watches witness testimony during the second day of his ethics trial.
Lily Burris
Metro Council member Anthony Piagentini watches witness testimony during the second day of his ethics trial.

Louisville's Ethics Commission will decide Thursday whether a top Metro Council Republican committed misconduct when he advocated for a potential employer to receive a $40 million grant. What comes next?

District 19’s Anthony Piagentini is accused of negotiating a consulting job with the Louisville Healthcare CEO Council, a one-year contract worth $240,000, while at the same time supporting the nonprofit’s bid for a grant from the city. Piagentini accepted the job with the CEO Council a day after they were awarded the grant. Piagentini has denied wrongdoing, saying he recused himself from votes after he realized there was a serious offer on the table.

The commission, which handles misconduct complaints against city officials, conducted a weeklong trial in August to determine if Piagentini’s actions violated Louisville’s ethics code. They’re considering seven charges, including whether the East End Republican used his office to “secure unwarranted privileges or advantages” for himself.

In a press release last month, the commission’s lawyer Todd Lewis said commissioners will hold a public meeting on Thursday, “at which they expect to complete deliberations and render their decision in this matter.” They could clear Piagentini or recommend punishment.

What would punishment look like?

Louisville’s Ethics Commission is empowered to dole out a short list of potential disciplinary actions.

If the commission decides that Piagentini violated the ethics code, but the violations were unintentional or “a good faith misinterpretation” of ethics rules, then the most they can do is issue a written reprimand.

However, if the Ethics Commission decides the violations were intentional, they have four options. The Commission can issue a formal censure, basically a public showing of dissaproval. They can also issue a recommendation that Piagentini receive additional ethics training or recommend “remediation.” It’s unclear what remediation would look like, since the Healthcare CEO Council was already awarded the $40 million grant. Piagentini could also face a fine “not less than $25 nor more than $500,” according to Louisville’s Code of Ordinances.

The most severe punishment the commission can issue is a formal recommendation of removal from office. The commission itself cannot remove an elected official, though. That power lies solely with the Metro Council.

Another ethics trial?

If the Ethics Commission recommends removal, it will have to send it in writing to Louisville’s 26-member Metro Council. The council’s rules, which are based on local and state law, lay out what would happen next:

Five Council Members are required to start the removal process. They must provide written charges against a fellow representative and swear under oath that they believe the person committed “misconduct, incapacity, or willful neglect in the performance of their official duties,” which are the only valid reasons for removal under Kentucky law.

After the written charges are sent to the Metro Council clerk, another ethics hearing will take place. This time, council members will act as the jury. The council member accused of misconduct has a right to “a full public hearing,” per state law.

Removing a Metro Council member from office requires a two-thirds vote of everyone except the person facing removal, or 17 “yes” votes. Democrats hold exactly 17 seats on Metro Council, meaning they would not need Republican support.

Brian Powell, executive assistant to Metro Council President Markus Winkler, said in an email Monday that each member will review the commission’s recommendations.

“Any proposed training or remediation will be determined by the Council Leadership, the members of the Committee on Committees,” Powell said. “If removal is recommended, we will follow the Metro Council Rules governing this process.”

The council leadership includes Winkler, as well as the chairs and co-chairs of the Democratic and Republican Caucuses.

There have been just two removal hearings of this type since the 2003 merger of the City of Louisville and Jefferson County, which created the Metro Council.

In 2011, Metro Council members voted unanimously to remove Democrat Judy Green, who was accused of using her office to obtain $35,000 in public funding for a summer jobs program she ran. The program also employed some of her family members.

District 2 Council Member Barbara Shanklin, also a Democrat, narrowly avoided removal in 2013 after facing similar allegations.

Democrat Dan Johnson was removed in 2017 through a different process.

A member who has been removed from office can appeal Metro Council’s decision to Jefferson County Circuit Court and the Kentucky Court of Appeals.

The Ethics Commission can also turn over any evidence it has collected in its investigation to the Kentucky Attorney General, the U.S. Attorney’s Office or any law enforcement agency for use in a criminal investigation.

Roberto Roldan is the City Politics and Government Reporter for WFPL. Email Roberto at rroldan@lpm.org.

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