Understanding the commission investigating Louisville’s recent ethics controversies
It’s been a whirlwind month for government accountability in Louisville Metro Government. Last week, the Ethics Commission found Metro Council’s top Republican, Anthony Piagentini, guilty of six violations of the city’s ethics code, which spells out how elected officials should avoid conflicts of interest. Reports of an ethics complaint against Mayor Craig Greenberg emerged a day later.
The ruling against Piagentini, and the recommendation that he be removed from office, came from the seven-member Ethics Commission. That body will also investigate the complaint against Greenberg and decide whether to pursue a formal trial. Under Louisville’s Code of Ordinances, the commission is tasked with ensuring all elected and appointed officials, Metro employees and their spouses are acting in the public’s interest — not their own.
Until recently, the Ethics Commission was all but inactive. The last time they held a trial involving a high-level elected official was in 2013, when Metro Council Member Barbara Shanklin, a District 2 Democrat, was found to have directed taxpayers dollars to organizations she led. The council boosted the commission’s responsibilities last year, when it expanded financial disclosure rules for city leaders and required local lobbyists to register. That didn’t come with additional funding or resources, however. The Commission has no formal budget and is run by volunteers, outside of paid legal counsel and one HR employee.
With the Ethics Commission back in the limelight, some residents may be wondering just who this group is and how they work.
Who’s on the ethics commission?
All seven Ethics Commission members are appointed by the Louisville mayor and approved by Metro Council. Commissioners are unpaid volunteers. Each member is appointed to a three-year term and can serve two consecutive terms, followed by future terms after a gap of at least a year. They must be chosen “by virtue of their known and consistent reputation for integrity and their knowledge of local government affairs.”
There are some requirements, set out in local law, to try to ensure the Ethics Commission is geographically and politically diverse. No two commission members can live in the same Metro Council district, although they could theoretically live in the same neighborhood if it’s split among two districts.
Like all of Louisville’s boards and commissions, the Ethics Commission is supposed to reflect the city’s political diversity, meaning there should be a mix of Republicans and Democrats. There are currently two Republicans, Robert Boyd and Michael Oyler, and an Independent, Kelli Morris. The other four members are Democrats. They are:
- Dee Pregliasco, the commission’s chair
- Angela Edwards
- William Schreck
- Laura Douglas
All the current members were appointed by former Mayor Greg Fischer — except Douglas, whom Greenberg appointed this year, said Todd Lewis, the commission's general counsel.
Last week, Council Member Piagentini challenged whether the current makeup of the Ethics Commission is actually politically diverse. He suggested that the commission’s two Republicans may not be real conservatives, pointing to their past donations to Democratic candidates in Kentucky. Piagentini referred to the commission’s unanimous finding that he violated ethics rules as a “political hit job.”
LPM News reached out to Boyd and Oyler for a response to Piagentini’s claims but received no response.
How does the ethics complaint system work?
The first step in initiating an ethics investigation is for someone with knowledge of a violation to lodge a complaint with the Ethics Commission. The person has to make the complaint under oath, and in most cases it has to be filed within a year of the alleged violation.
According to city code, the person accused of violating ethics rules has a right to due process. The person has to be notified of a complaint within 10 days of it being filed and they have 20 days to respond.
Any city leader or elected official accused of a violation may hire an attorney to represent them before the Ethics Commission. Louisville Metro is required to pay for their lawyer, up to $25,000.
The Ethics Commission can hold a trial to determine whether the person actually violated ethics rules. It functions similar to a criminal trial, where a member of the commission is appointed to act as the prosecutor and witnesses testify under oath. The remaining commissioners act as a jury, voting on whether to find someone guilty of a violation or not.
What could punishment look like?
Louisville’s Code of Ordinances provides a short list of possible punishments the Ethics Commission can give out.
If they decide that a violation was unintentional or due to “a good faith misinterpretation” of ethics rules, then the most they can do is issue a written reprimand. There are four options if commissioners determine the violation was intentional:
- They can issue a formal censure, basically a public showing of disapproval
- They can recommend the employee or elected official receive additional ethics training
- They can recommend the violation be “remediated,” which is undefined in local law
- They can recommend the employee or elected official be fired or removed from office
In the case of a Metro Council member, the council president and Democratic and Republican caucus leaders decide what form the additional training or remediation would take. Removing a Metro Council member from office requires another ethics trial, this time by the council, and a two-thirds vote to remove.
Removing a mayor from office would also require hearings by Metro Council and approval by two-thirds of council members.
Any elected official removed from office can appeal the decision to Jefferson County Circuit Court and the Kentucky Court of Appeals.
All of the Ethics Commission’s investigative documents can made public after members make their recommendation and close a case. The commission can also share its evidence with local, state and federal law enforcement agencies.
Correction: A previous version of this story said Kelli Morris is a Democrat. She is an Independent.