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Louisville Ethics Commission discourages proposed real estate deal between council members

Man in suit speaks at lectern
Jacob Ryan
/
LPM
Metro Council Member Anthony Piagentini said the latest opinion from the Ethics Commission demonstrates its bias against him.

A proposed real estate transaction that came together around the time of a recent misconduct trial in Louisville Metro Council likely would have violated local law, according to the city’s Ethics Commission.

Andrew Owen, who heads a commercial real estate company, requested an advisory opinion from the Ethics Commission on March 4. Owen said he was approached in mid-February by Council Member Anthony Piagentini, who had a potential tenant for one of Owen’s properties. This interaction happened shortly before Piagentini, a commercial real estate advisor, was to go on trial for alleged misconduct, with Owen and other council members as the jury.

In an preliminary opinion issued to Owen on March 8, Ethics Commission Chair Dee Pregliasco and legal counsel Todd Lewis said they believed the proposed deal would likely violate the city’s ethics code, which bars even the appearance of impropriety.

“A reasonable observer may easily infer that [Piagentini] has steered this business opportunity to you for the purpose of gaining influence over you, or access to you, in your official capacity, even if there is insufficient evidence that this was his actual intent,” Pregliasco and Lewis wrote.

They came to this conclusion even though Piagentini had already informed the other Metro Council members of the proposed deal at a public meeting on Feb. 29. He told them he was ending any personal involvement in the deal and, while the company he works for was still involved, he would receive no compensation from it.

Piagentini followed up with an email to Metro Council staff, laying out a timeline of how his client had looked at other properties before landing on the one owned by Owen’s company, and the series of interactions between the two council members.

Owen initially sought the opinion of the Jefferson County Attorney’s Office. The JCAO contracted with outside counsel, who said he didn’t see an issue with the deal but suggested the Ethics Commission might rule differently.

The Ethics Commission voted unanimously Thursday to adopt the the preliminary opinion.

In the opinion, obtained via an open records request, the authors acknowledge Piagentini had agreed to remove himself from the proposed deal, but say it doesn’t change their view.

“...this has little weight (because the issue is the appearance of a benefit offered to [Owen], not whether [Piagentini] will receive a direct financial benefit),” the opinion said.

The commission found Piagentini guilty of several ethics violations last fall, saying they determined he was negotiating a job with a nonprofit while supporting its bid for a $40 million grant allocated by the city. This week, council members voted against finding him guilty and did not remove him after conducting a trial on similar charges.

Piagentini’s past conduct could make a reasonable person think he was attempting to influence Owen’s decision in the ethics trial, the commission’s representatives said in their opinion.

They noted Piagentini had not done business with Owen prior to this proposed deal, which came just before the trial.

“Perhaps most significantly, the Respondent has already recently been adjudicated as having engaged in transactions in violation of the Ethics Code with an actual corrupt intent in the very recent past,” they wrote.

In the opinion, the authors made clear they weren’t deciding on Piagentini’s actual intent, just the appearance of it.

Piagentini said he didn’t know about the opinion until LPM News contacted him. In an interview on Wednesday, he said he had wanted to file the request for an advisory opinion jointly with Owen, but that didn’t happen. Therefore, he said, the commission may have been lacking important context, like the letter he sent to council members and evidence he provided to the Jefferson County Attorney’s Office that he was not trying to steer the real estate deal toward Owen’s company.

The commission didn’t contact him to discuss the advisory opinion, which focuses almost exclusively on his intent or the appearance of it, Piagentini said. He said it shows the bias the commission has against him, which he’s been talking about publicly since last year.

“The Ethics Commission is so obviously, and I think this opinion proves it, hellbent on assuming that everything I do is unethical that they are bordering on not capable of rendering an unbiased opinion if I’m involved in it,” he said.

Piagentini said he believes the commission was “twisting themselves into pretzels” to arrive at their conclusion. He also accused them of rendering an opinion on past conduct — his “steering” the deal to Owen — when the commission is only supposed to offer guidance on future decisions, absent a complaint.

“They’re basically, in that opinion, accusing me of violating the ethics code irreparably, which they admit they can’t do,” he said.

The opinion states the commission’s guidance only relates to whether Owen should do the real estate transaction and was not for Piagentini, “who may seek his own guidance.”

Owen told LPM News on Wednesday that he decided to ask for an opinion earlier this month out of “an abundance of caution.” He and Piagentini said they will comply with whatever the commission decides.

“I do think protecting the institution and protecting the public trust in the institution is important, and the best way to do that is to follow the process,” Owen said.

Owen said “the person who wanted the space” is going to be most impacted by the advisory opinion.

For his part, Piagentini said he hasn’t waited on the commission to back off the deal and avoid ethical concerns.

“My managing broker has offered to transfer the client to an entirely different brokerage house so that no one within his company (myself or any other agent) in any way would be involved or compensated by this to ensure that the client was not prejudiced due to a potential conflict,” Piagentini said in an email.

The Ethics Commission took up this and other advisory opinions when it met in Metro Hall on Thursday at 3 p.m. Owen could ask the commission to reconsider its opinion.

This story has been updated to reflect that the Ethics Commission voted to approve the opinion, which was previously preliminary.

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