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Louisville Metro Council votes not to remove Piagentini after ethics trial

Man seated in front of computer and skinny microphone
J. Tyler Franklin
Council Member Anthony Piagentini, a District 19 Republican, faced two ethics trials related to his support of a $40 million grant for a local nonprofit.

Louisville Metro Council Member Anthony Piagentini will remain in office following an ethics trial.

Metro Council members heard from witnesses and reviewed the evidence against District 19 Republican Anthony Piagentini during the more than two-week trial. Piagentini was accused of negotiating a job with a nonprofit, the Louisville Healthcare CEO Council, while supporting their bid for a $40 million grant. Council members were split on whether Piagentini violated the city’s ethics code, which could have led to his removal from office.

At a separate ethics trial last fall, the city’s Ethics Commission found “clear and convincing evidence” Piagentini violated local ethics laws. They fined him $3,000 and “strongly” recommended his removal. Louisville Mayor Craig Greenberg clawed back the grant from the CEO Council in response to the ruling.

During the course of this trial, a private investigator hired by the Ethics Commission last year testified Piagentini’s case was referred to the FBI.

Piagentini has maintained his innocence and he’s currently appealing the commission’s ruling. In council chambers Monday night, he told reporters he plans to hold a press conference on Tuesday.

When Metro Council members headed into a closed conference room in City Hall for deliberations Monday, they were facing three key questions: Did Piagentini commit misconduct? Was that misconduct intentional? And should he be removed from office because of it?

Council members never got to questions of removal because there were not enough votes to find Piagentini committed misconduct in the first place.

Piagentini was facing eight misconduct charges, including using his office to secure “unwarranted privileges or advantages,” failing to properly disclose a conflict of interest and lying under oath during his testimony in the previous Ethics Commission trial.

Republican council members voted “no” to all of the charges, while Democrats voted “yes” on some charges and against others. The most “yes” votes any charge received was 12, well short of the 18-vote threshold. District 2 Democrat Barbara Shanklin and District 4 Independent Jecorey Arthur did not participate in the verdict.

Metro Council posted the verdict sheet for each charge on Monday night.

Council President Markus Winkler of District 17 was one of the Democrats who voted in favor of some charges and against others. He said he hopes council members can continue to work well with each other now that the trial is over.

“I don’t think that this is a process that anybody leaves unimpacted,” Winkler told reporters after reading the results. “It’s probably the most serious thing that we have to contemplate as it relates to ourselves. I’m sure it’s going to take some time to heal those relationships, but I hope that we’re able to work together and move on to the next issue.”

Metro Council asked to ‘send a message’ with verdict

Earlier Monday, attorneys made their final arguments to the Council Court before they headed into closed session to deliberate.

Much of the case against Piagentini hinged on whether he was negotiating a job with the Louisville Healthcare CEO Council prior to or on Nov. 17, 2022. That morning, Piagentini received an email from the nonprofit’s president, Tammy York Day, that had a non-disclosure agreement attached. He voted in favor of advancing the organization’s application for a sizable American Rescue Plan Act grant during a committee meeting later that day.

On Monday, Piagentini’s lawyer, Michael Swansburg, said there was no evidence presented during the trial that showed Piagentini and York Day discussed a job offer before he signed and returned the NDA the next day.

“If I disclose the reasons or details necessitating a non-disclosure agreement before you sign it, then I’ve defeated the purpose of a non-disclosure agreement,” he said.

Swansburg pointed to the fact that there was no information in the email as a way of showing Piagentini didn’t know what it was about before voting in committee.

But attorney Kent Wicker argued Piagentini was trying to deny the obvious. Wicker, who represented the Metro Council members who brought the charges, argued Piagentini and York Day had been talking about working together for over a year at that point. He said no one receives an NDA out of the blue.

“They both knew it was coming,” Wicker said. “They both knew what it was about. They both knew what they were talking about.”

Wicker acted much like a prosecutor in the case, calling witnesses and introducing evidence that painted the picture of a corruption scandal. He accused York Day of using the job offer as “an insurance policy” to make sure the $40 million grant proposal was approved. At the time, he said, the city had a limited amount of federal COVID-19 relief left and there were more projects on the table than there was money to fund them.

Wicker presented Metro Council with evidence that York Day signed off on the $240,000 consulting contract for Piagentini shortly after the grant for the CEO Council received final approval.

“There are no coincidences,” he said. “She waited to see if she got what she paid for.”

Wicker also told Metro Council that, unlike a criminal trial, Piagentini’s decision to invoke his Fifth Amendment right not to testify could be used against him in this trial.

“You may presume that, if he had answered the questions…they would have shown he was guilty of the charge of misconduct,” Wicker said.

But Piagentini’s lawyers said the narrative Wicker crafted was nothing more than innuendo and speculation. They accused him of relying on logical fallacies and “coincidence of time.”

“They sit there and repeat over and over that, ‘Well, these two events happened at a similar time, so one must have caused the other,’” Swansburg said. “But if they were being honest with you, they’d show you the proof.”

The two sides asked Metro Council members to think about the message their decision would send to Louisville residents.

Wicker argued not removing Piagentini would mean Metro Council doesn’t take ethics seriously. He repeated a line he used in his opening statement: that it wasn’t Piagentini on trial, but Metro Council itself.

“You passed a code of ethics,” he said. “If you weren’t serious about it you might as well tear it up … This community may some day forget what Piagentini took to get here, but it will not forget how you responded to it.”

For Piagentini’s lawyers, a decision not to remove him from office would be a show of courage.

“If you’re going to send a message … let it be this: This Council Court will not be pressed to make a decision based on politics or personal animosity,” Swansburg said.

Piagentini was re-elected in 2022 and is now serving his second term, which runs through 2027.

Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the year Piagentini was re-elected.

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