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Updates: Louisville Metro Council Member removal hearings continue

Published February 26, 2024 at 6:00 AM EST
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.

Republican Metro Council Member Anthony Piagentini is accused of violating the city’s ethics code due to his relationship with a nonprofit that received a $40 million grant. The proceedings to remove him continue.

Keep up with live updates from LPM News.

Investigator: Piagentini ethics investigation referred to FBI

Posted March 11, 2024 at 6:45 PM EDT

An investigation into Louisville Metro Council Member Anthony Piagentini’s relationship with a local nonprofit that received a $40 million grant has been referred to the FBI.

Private Investigator Jim Griffin told Metro Council members about the referral during the 5th day of removal proceedings against Piagentini. The District 19 Republican has been accused of negotiating a job with the Louisville Healthcare CEO Council while supporting their bid for some of the city’s federal COVID-19 relief money.

Griffin, who was hired by the Metro Ethics Commission to investigate Piagentini’s actions, said during his testimony Monday morning that the FBI requested a copy of his final report.

“The only thing I’ve been authorized to say is that this case has been referred to the FBI and I’m going to have to stick to that,” he said.

Griffin did not elaborate on his conversations with the FBI or what other information he may have provided them. His investigation was the basis for the Ethics Commission’s decision to hold a week-long trial last fall. The commission ultimately found “clear and convincing evidence” that Piagentini violated Louisville’s ethics code and recommended he be removed from office.

In response to questions from LPM News, FBI Louisville Public Affairs Specialist Katie Anderson said she could “neither confirm nor deny such an investigation,” citing U.S. Department of Justice policy.

Following Griffin’s testimony, lawyers for the charging committee called Piagentini to the stand. He refused to answer any questions, citing his Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination.

Piagentini’s attorney, Michael Swansburg said he advised Piagentini to go that route because of “the evolving nature of the claims against my client.”

The charging committee, made up of the council members who initiated the removal proceedings, rested their case Monday just before noon. Piagentini now has the opportunity to present his own witnesses and evidence to defend himself.

The first witnesses he called to the stand included Metro Council President Markus Winkler. Winkler testified that it was his idea, not Piagentini’s, to give the COVID-19 relief grant to the Healthcare CEO.

Winkler also said he was being pressured by his fellow Metro Council members to respond to Piagentini’s potential conflict of interest after the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting broke the news. He said one colleague told him that he wasn’t a “true Democrat” if he did not file an ethics complaint against Piagentini. He said a Republican council member also threatened to file retaliatory complaints against Democrats, if he did.

There was “pressure all around,” Winkler said.

Piagentini’s defense rests on Day 6, closing arguments later this week

Posted March 12, 2024 at 12:44 PM EDT

Louisville Metro Council Member Anthony Piagentini wrapped up his defense Tuesday morning in the ethics trial that could result in his removal from office.

Before resting their case, Piagentini’s attorneys called on employees of the Louisville Healthcare CEO Council to testify. The District 19 Republican has been accused of negotiating a job with the local nonprofit while supporting its bid for a $40 million grant. His fellow council members are tasked with deciding whether he violated the city’s ethics code and if his actions warrant removal.

Piagentini’s lawyers tried to show council members that the $240,000 contract job he took with the CEO Council required hard work and expertise. They argued the job offer was not a bribe and Piagentini was the best person for that role.

Rick Remmers, a former Humana executive and one of the founders of the CEO Council, testified that Piagentini was hired to lead the nonprofit’s innovation committee. Remmers said he helped bring together startup companies, investors and health care executives at a conference in 2023.

Asked by Piagentini’s attorney, J. Brooken Smith, if the work was something “just anyone off the street could perform,” Remmers said Piagentini led a group made up of senior people in Louisville’s health care industry.

“You have to have some experience and perspective in the health care world or you just really wouldn’t be viewed as credible with that group,” Remmers said.

Smith also questioned Remmers about his relationship with Tammy York Day, the president of the CEO Council who offered the job to Piagentini while the grant application was moving through Metro Council. Remmers said he did not think York Day would ever be involved in a scheme to bribe a public official.

Piagentini decided not to renew his contract with the CEO Council after his first year with them, according to Remmers.

An attorney representing the Metro Council members who brought the ethics charges against Piagentini noted on cross-examination that Remmers was not involved in hiring Piagentini and he didn’t know whether the job had been publicly advertised. He asked Remmers if someone who was not a council member could have done the job just as well.

“I’m sure there could be,” Remmers conceded.

As part of his defense, Piagentini also called Josh Williams to testify. Williams is the vice president of strategic initiatives for the CEO Council. He said Piagentini was not part of “implementing or executing” the $40 million grant after it was approved in late 2022, although Piagentini attended two meetings between the CEO Council and city officials last year.

Metro Council members, who are acting as the jury in this case, were dismissed around noon so that attorneys could debate jury instructions. They’re expected to be asked to return later this week to hear closing arguments and deliberate on a verdict.

Removing Piagentini from office would require a two-thirds majority vote.

How did we get here?

Updated February 26, 2024 at 6:00 AM EST
Posted March 11, 2024 at 6:44 PM EDT

For the first time in more than six years, Louisville Metro Council will hold a trial to decide whether to remove one of its own members. Like a criminal trial, the council trial will start with opening statements from opposing attorneys Monday night, then move on to witnesses and evidence. Proceedings will begin each day at 5 p.m. at least through Wednesday this week.

The accusations against Piagentini stem from his support for a job training program proposed by the Louisville Healthcare CEO Council in late 2022. The nonprofit wanted the city to award it $40 million in federal pandemic relief. Last fall, the city’s Ethics Commission held a week-long trial and found “clear and convincing evidence” that Piagentini was negotiating a job with the CEO Council at the same time he was advocating for them to receive funding. Mayor Craig Greenberg rescinded the grant because of the scandal.

Piagentini, who represents District 19 in the East End, has denied any wrongdoing. He also questioned the objectivity of the Ethics Commission ruling and called the allegations “a political hit job” by Democrats.

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

In the Metro Council trial, Piagentini is facing eight ethics charges:

- Improperly soliciting or accepting a promise of employment

- Two counts of using an official position to secure unwarranted privileges or advantages

- Impairment of objectivity or independent judgment

- Failure to disqualify himself from a matter before Metro Council in which he had a private or financial interest

- Failure to disclose a financial or private interest in a matter before Metro Council

- Misconduct by failure to disclose

- Misconduct by perjury

A group of five Metro Council members, known as the charging committee, laid out the charges against Piagentini in a 24-page complaint filed last November. They relied heavily on the Ethics Commission investigation.

The charging committee will be represented at the trial by attorney Kent Wicker, who will act much like a prosecutor would in a criminal trial. Wicker will lay out the evidence against Piagentini for the other the council members, who will act as the jury. They will ultimately decide whether to remove him from public office.

Lawyers J. Brooken Smith and Michael G. Swansburg, Jr. are representing Piagentini. They will have the opportunity to cross-examine witnesses and present their own witnesses and evidence.

Under state law, removing a Metro Council member from office requires the support from two-thirds of the representatives, or 18 “yes” votes.

There are currently 16 Democrats, 9 Republicans and 1 independent on Metro Council, meaning any vote in favor of removal will have to cross party lines.

Correction: A previous version of this post inaccurately reported the last time a Metro Council removal trial occurred.

First week of Piagentini removal trial draws to a close

Posted March 1, 2024 at 7:33 PM EST

The first week of the removal trial for Louisville Metro Council Member Anthony Piagentini ended Friday night. The council will now take a week-long break before resuming hearings.

Attorney Kent Wicker began building his case this week against Piagentini, who’s accused of using his position as a Louisville Metro Council member to secure a $240,000 consulting job contract. Wicker represents a group of council members who brought the ethics charges against the District 19 Republican, known as the charging committee, and is acting as a prosecutor in this case.

Through calling former city employees and Metro Council officials to testify, Wicker has tried to establish that Piagentini was looking for a new job while he served on a workforce development working group. That group was tasked with using federal COVID-19 relief to fund a “transformative” jobs initiative. They ultimately settled on a health care job training program proposed by the Louisville Healthcare CEO Council.

In testimony that began Wednesday and ran into Friday, private investigator Jim Griffin detailed the investigation he conducted for the city’s Ethics Commission. The commission concluded after a trial last fall that Piagentini was negotiating a job with the Healthcare CEO Council while supporting their bid for a $40 million grant. Evidence showed Piagentini penned an employment contract with the group the day after Metro Council signed off on the grant.

Piagentini has denied any wrongdoing, and his lawyers have challenged witnesses who questioned whether he had a conflict of interest and whether he properly disclosed that conflict to his fellow Metro Council members.

Attorney Michael Swansburg, representing Piagentini, questioned Griffin about whether he could say with absolute certainty that Piagentini’s actions violated Louisville’s ethics code.

“Would you agree with me, based on your long-time experience with the Kentucky State Police and in the private sector, that there are cases…where evidence might look really bad for a person accused, but that ultimately no crime was committed?” Swansburg asked on cross-examination.

“I’m not sure I’ve worked any of those, but that’s always a possibility,” Griffin responded.

The charging committee still has seven people on its witness list who have yet to testify, including leaders of the Healthcare CEO Council. Piagentini and his attorneys will then have an opportunity to present their own witnesses and evidence.

At the end of the trial, Metro Council members will vote on whether to remove Piagentini from office. Doing so will require a two-thirds majority vote.

The trial will resume on March 11.

Louisville deputy mayor testifies against Piagentini in Day 3 of removal trial

Updated February 28, 2024 at 8:51 PM EST
Posted February 28, 2024 at 9:06 PM EST

Louisville Metro Council heard testimony from the former council president Wednesday night as part of the removal trial for Council Member Anthony Piagentini.

Piagentini is accused of violating Louisville’s ethics code by negotiating a job with a local nonprofit while supporting their bid for a $40 million grant. The District 19 Republican accepted a $240,000 consulting job with the Louisville Healthcare CEO Council the day after Metro Council approved the grant.

Attorneys for the group of Metro Council members who brought the ethics charges against Piagentini, known as the charging committee, called Louisville Deputy Mayor David James to the stand Wednesday for the third day of the trial. At the time they were considering the grant award, James was the president of Metro Council.

Louisville Metro Deputy Mayor David James, center, being sworn in ahead of his testimony Wednesday night.
Roberto Roldan
Louisville Metro Deputy Mayor David James, center, being sworn in ahead of his testimony Wednesday night.

He testified that Piagentini recused himself from the final vote on the grant, but he didn’t know it was because he was courting a job offer. James said if he had, he would have halted the vote.

“He had participated in the conversations and the committee meetings, and one would believe that there was a problem with the conflict of interest,” he said. “I would have asked the county attorney’s office for advice on what we should do moving forward and how we should do that.”

James said he didn’t think Piagentini’s abstention from the final vote, where he offered no explanation about his conflict of interest, complied with Metro Council rules. One of the eight charges against Piagentini is that he didn't properly recuse himself.

Piagentini’s attorneys drilled James, however, about whether other Metro Council members offered any explanation when recusing from other votes and whether the rules were being strictly enforced at the time.

“I don’t think there’s any hard and fast words you have to say,” James conceded during cross-examination.

Private investigator Jim Griffin also testified before Metro Council Wednesday night. Griffin was hired by the Metro Ethics Commission to investigate the initial complaint against Piagentini.

The charging committee’s lawyers had Griffin explain his investigation, including all the witnesses he interviewed and how he subpoenaed phone records. Griffin also pointed out inconsistencies between Piagentini’s statements to him as part of his investigation and Piagentini’s testimony during the Ethics Commission trial. One of the charges against Piagentini is misconduct through perjury.

The Ethics Commission held a weeklong trial last fall, ultimately finding clear and convincing evidence that Piagentini violated the city’s ethics code.

Piagentini has denied any wrongdoing and is actively fighting his removal from office.

The trial will resume at 4 p.m. Friday.

Dueling abstentions and ‘an audible gasp’: testimony in Day 2 of Piagentini ethics trial

Posted February 27, 2024 at 9:55 PM EST

Louisville Metro Council heard from more witnesses Tuesday as attorney Kent Wicker continued his case for why they should remove Republican Anthony Piagentini from office.

Wicker is representing the committee of Metro Council members who brought the eight ethics charges against Piagentini. The witnesses he called to the stand Tuesday included an economic development official in former Mayor Greg Fischer’s administration and a former Metro Council member. He focused his questioning around how Metro Council decided to give $40 million in federal COVID-19 relief to the nonprofit Louisville Healthcare CEO Council. Piagentini signed a consulting contract with the CEO Council the day after the grant was approved.

The first witness to take the stand Tuesday night was Grace Simrall, who served as Metro’s Chief of Civic Innovation and Technology from 2016 to April 2023. Simrall worked with Piagentini and other members of an economic development workgroup to vet funding proposals, ultimately deciding to give the grant to the CEO Council.

She told Metro Council Tuesday that she was in a meeting with the newly elected Mayor Craig Greenberg and other city staffers when she found out Piagentini had taken a job with the nonprofit. That meeting happened after the grant had already been approved.

“When this was disclosed, there was an audible gasp in the room,” Simrall said.

She later testified she was taken aback because there was the “appearance of personal enrichment” on Piagentini’s part and “as officers of Metro Government we cannot personally enrich ourselves, personally enrich our families.” She said she would have asked the Ethics Commission to investigate the incident, had someone else not filed a complaint first.

Woman testifies in a courtroom.
Roberto Roldan
Grace Simrall, right, Louisville Metro's former Chief of Civic Innovation and Technology, testifying at Tuesday's hearing.

During cross examination, Piagentini’s lawyers attempted to poke holes in parts of the charging committee’s narrative.

Wicker previously argued that city officials gave a low score to the Healthcare CEO Council’s economic development project, but Piagentini and other members of the Metro Council workgroup pushed it forward anyway. In response to questioning from defense attorneys, Simrall conceded that the low-scoring proposal was a scaled-down version of what was ultimately funded.

“They were different,” she testified.

Simrall said during her testimony that District 17 Council Member Markus Winkler was the one who first suggested awarding the grant to the CEO Council, not Piagentini, something his attorneys emphasized.

Metro Council members also heard from former District 9 Council Member Bill Hollander, who headed the council’s Budget Committee until his retirement in 2022.

During his testimony, Wicker played video of a Budget Committee meeting in late 2022 where Piagentini recused himself from voting on whether to approve the CEO Council grant. Piagentini only said that he had to abstain from the vote and needed to be removed as a sponsor of the ordinance.

Asked if this was the proper way to recuse yourself according to Metro Council rules, Hollander said: “No.”

“[I’d expect someone to disclose] that they were an employee of someone, that their wife was an employee of someone or some other interest,” he added. “And there was no discussion here about what entity Mr. Piagentini had any interest in.”

Wicker also played a video from another time Piagentini abstained from a vote where he explained that it was specifically because of his wife’s business dealings. One of the eight charges against Piagentini is failing to properly abstain from a vote for which he had a conflict of interest, a charge Piagentini is contesting.

In response, one of Piagentini’s lawyers, J. Brooken Smith, played a video of District 5 Council Member Donna Purvis and District 24 Council Member Madonna Flood, both Democrats, also abstaining from votes without much explanation. Smith said these videos showed Metro Council was not enforcing strict disclosure rules at the time.

The trial continues Wednesday starting at 5 p.m.

This story was updated to correct the district Bill Hollander represented.

‘Did you mean it?’ Attorney challenges Metro Council to uphold ethics code in day 1 of Piagentini trial

Updated February 26, 2024 at 9:58 PM EST
Posted February 26, 2024 at 10:00 PM EST

Attorneys put forth competing narratives of Piagentini’s actions in late 2022, when he supported a local nonprofit’s bid for a multi-million dollar grant. One characterized it as a scheme to benefit his own career, the other as an uncontroversial decision to support the best proposal for Louisville.

At the end of the trial, Metro Council members will have to decide if Piagentini, a District 19 Republican, should be removed from public office.

Kent Wicker, the lawyer representing the 5-member council committee that brought the charges against Piagentini, opened by quoting the ruling of the Louisville Metro Ethics Commission which found last fall that Piagentini violated the city’s ethics code.

“The ethics commission found by unanimous vote and by clear and convincing evidence that ‘Piagentini took advantage of a perilous moment in government finance and did so with the intent to personally enrich himself,’” he said.

Kent Wicker stands at a podium
Roberto Roldan
Kent Wicker addresses the Louisville Metro Council during the opening night of council member Anthony Piagentini's removal trial.

Wicker was also the attorney for Kevin Fields, the local nonprofit leader that filed the initial ethics complaint against Piagentini in March 2023. In that role, Wicker was deeply involved in the ethics commission’s trial last year. Many of Wicker’s arguments Monday night were similar to ones he made in the commission’s trial.

But he issued a challenge, of sorts, to council members on Monday — telling the legislators that it’s not Piagentini on trial, but the body itself.

“You passed a Code of Ethics. Were you serious about it? Did you mean it?” Wicker argued.

He said the decision of the Metro Council in this case will tell the public whether they are willing to hold each other accountable.

Piagentini’s lawyers, meanwhile, attempted to cast doubt on the narrative presented by Wicker.

Attorney Michael Swansburg Jr. accused Wicker of attempting to cover up holes in the “plot” to get the public to believe a fiction. Swansburg argued Piagentini abstained from voting on the $40 million grant after he realized there was a serious job offer on the table.

He likened Piagentini to Phil Connors, the fictional weatherman in the movie "Groundhog Day" who became stuck in a time loop, repeating the same day over and over again.

“In the fall of 2022, Piagentini was offered and accepted an opportunity to work with the Louisville Healthcare CEO Council,” Swansburg said. “Like Phil Connors’ arrival in Punxsutawney, however, this was the start of his own endless loop.”

And Swansburg said re-litigating Piagentini’s actions over and over has had an impact on him and his family. In his opening statement, he asked the Metro Council to immediately go back to the deliberating room and decide the case based on the record of the Ethics Commission trial.

“I respectfully ask that we not belabor the point here, that we not repeat, potentially for the next few weeks, what has already been done,” Swansburg said.

His request was denied by president pro tempore Rick Blackwell.

The trial will resume Tuesday starting at 5 p.m.