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Trial to remove Louisville Metro Council Republican set for late February

Metro Council Member Anthony Piagentini, center, sits beside his lawyer, Brooken Smith, center left, during the hearing Wednesday night.
Roberto Roldan
Metro Council Member Anthony Piagentini, center, sits beside his lawyer, Brooken Smith, center left, during the hearing Wednesday night.

Louisville Metro Council Member Anthony Piagentini is facing an ethics trial over his relationship with a local nonprofit that sought a $40 million grant from the city. It could end in his removal from office.

Metro Council met Wednesday night to set a date for the upcoming ethics trial for Anthony Piagentini, of District 19, which will function much like a civil trial. They will reconvene for the trial Feb. 26.

A group of Metro Council members will act as prosecutors, calling witnesses and submitting evidence. Piagentini will have the opportunity to call his own witnesses and challenge the allegations. At the end, the full Metro Council — minus Piagentini — will decide whether he violated Louisville’s Ethics Code and whether he should remain in office.

Piagentini represents parts of the East End and was Metro Council’s top Republican until earlier this month when he chose not to run for re-election to caucus chair. Last fall, the city’s Ethics Commission found “clear and convincing evidence” that Piagentini was negotiating a job with the nonprofit Louisville Healthcare CEO Council while supporting its bid for a grant awarded by the council.

Piagentini has denied any wrongdoing and he’s currently appealing the Ethics Commission’s ruling in circuit court. He’s called the accusations against him politically motivated.

"I'm not a perfect man, but I would rather die than accept what they accused me of,” Piagentini said last year following news of the ruling.

Piagentini did not address the media or his fellow council members during Wednesday’s hearing. He left the council chambers through the private exit shortly after the meeting adjourned.

Each day of the trial will begin at 5 p.m. to allow council members with day jobs to attend. It’s expected to last multiple days. Piagentini’s trial last year in front of the Ethics Commission took a week, with a final verdict coming months after the trial wrapped up.

Piagentini will face eight separate charges. Six of the charges are identical to the ethics violations the Ethics Commission found him guilty of last year.

The two new charges are honest services fraud, a federal crime involving bribery and perjury, which is illegal under Kentucky law. The perjury charge stems from Piagentini’s sworn testimony when he took the stand during the Ethics Commission trial.

Piagentini’s lawyer, Brooken Smith, filed a motion to dismiss the two new charges, arguing Metro Council doesn’t have the authority to find someone guilty of a crime. Smith said the council’s process for removing an elected official from office lacks the due process protections that people accused of a crime are granted under the U.S. Constitution, including the right to an impartial jury at trial.

“With all respect to this court, this body does not meet that standard of constitutional impartiality,” he said. “Every member of this court knows Piagentini personally, has worked with him. Some are the members of his own political party, some are members of the opposite political party.”

Smith said allowing for a charging committee of five Metro Council members to accuse a colleague of a crime could open the door to more trials for political purposes. He said Metro Council risked becoming like the U.S. Congress, where both parties have called for impeaching the president in recent years.

Kent Wicker is a local attorney representing the five-member charging committee. He’s acting as the prosecutor in this case. Wicker disagreed that allowing the two new charges to move forward would lead to an avalanche of removal proceedings.

“I don’t think anybody is happy to be here,” he said. “I don’t want to be here either, but we have to because we have a duty to respond to what happened in the Ethics Commission.”

Wicker noted it’s been more than 10 years since the last time a Metro Council member faced removal.

Metro Council members ultimately voted to keep the two charges against Piagentini heading into the trial.

Under state law, removing a Louisville Metro Council member from office requires a two-thirds vote of the entire body or 18 “yes” votes. That means any effort to remove Piagentini from office will have to be bipartisan.

Democrats hold 16 of 26 seats on Metro Council. There is one independent member, former Democrat Jecorey Arthur, and nine Republican representatives.

Even if Metro Council votes to remove Piagentini, it likely won’t mean an end in the case. Piagentini can appeal the decision to Jefferson County Circuit Court, as he’s already done in the Ethics Commission case.

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

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