Issue March 24, 2009

Ethics dilemma

Metro Council members push for ethics tip line, and one asks why the city auditor suddenly reversed course

A proposal to establish an anonymous ethics tip line in Metro government has lingered for four years in the office of Mayor Jerry Abramson without coming to fruition. Now, at least two Metro Council members are attempting to bypass the mayor’s office, filing an ordinance that would create such a hotline.

Oddly, the legislation lacks the support of the one city official who initially proposed that Metro government implement a tip line enabling city employees and citizens to confidentially report fraud, abuse and other unethical behavior.

Since 2005, Louisville Metro Auditor Mike Norman has twice proposed that the mayor’s office institute an anonymous ethics reporting system, once suggesting the creation of a new system entirely and a second time recommending the city tack an ethics line onto the existing 574-LMPD. Then, in August 2008, he finalized an audit of the city’s ethics program, and again specifically recommended the adoption of a tip line. And as recently as last week, Norman told LEO Weekly he was reluctant to continue spending his office’s resources proposing a tip line, likening his frustration with it going nowhere to “beating my head against the wall.”

But Norman has since reversed his position, and on Thursday he sent a letter to the 26-member council in response to LEO Weekly’s recent coverage of the issue, saying he did not issue a formal recommendation for the creation of a tip line because of concerns about the potential for abuse by employees.

“Until the abuse issue is satisfactorily addressed, it would be irresponsible, and a disservice to the hard-working employees … to move forward with the implementation of a hotline,” Norman writes. “I do not recommend implementing a hotline until this issue is addressed.”

In an interview with LEO Weekly, Councilman Kelly Downard, R-16, suggests the wording of the auditor’s letter to Metro Council is “suspiciously similar” to press releases issued by the mayor’s office, which has denied stalling the creation of a tip line.

As for Norman’s about-face, Downard says: “He didn’t backpedal, he turned around and ran the other way.” A co-sponsor of the ordinance, Downward worries the auditor’s letter might be used to table the proposed legislation.

The councilman expects the city auditor will be called to testify before the oversight committee and asked to highlight specific examples of tip lines being abused. In addition, Downard has already invited Kentucky Auditor Crit Luallen — whose office recently recommended Louisville adopt an ethics tip line — to testify on the matter.

“There’s a legitimate concern. That’s why we’re doing research with many other cities and we’re not seeing [issues of abuse] at all,” says Downard, who is co-sponsoring the legislation with Councilman Kevin Kramer, R-11. “If he has evidence, please let us know, because we’re going to need it when going through this legislation.”

A handful of other council members also have voiced support for the proposal.

Councilwoman Tina Ward-Pugh, D-9, says that although discussions about cost, maintenance and protections for the accused need to continue, she supports the ordinance and is considering co-sponsoring the legislation.

“We have to figure out a way for our employees to share information without fear,” she says. “I just want to be sure that people have a way to share concerns or situations without losing their jobs, and one of the ways to do that is a tip line.”

The ordinance addresses the concern of tips without merit — that could damage someone’s reputation if they’re open to the public — by ensuring all complaints will remain confidential until an independent tip-line administrator makes a recommendation to the appropriate agency.

The attorney general’s office says farming out the tip line to a third-party administrator does not resolve the open records question, which is the primary excuse the mayor’s office has given to explain the four-year stall. Allison Gardner Martin, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Jack Conway, says her office would have some concerns about a third-party tip line. Even if a private entity fields the anonymous calls, for instance, it is working on behalf of a public agency.

However, records would be exempt from open records law during the course of an investigation.

Although she appreciates the city auditor’s concerns, Ward-Pugh says there is no foolproof measure, adding that Metro government should do something: “Other cities have figured it out and surely we can. We can’t just stop there.”

The state of Kentucky launched an anonymous ethics tip line in 1996, an undertaking government officials say has proven successful, prompting a handful of major investigations and resulting in very few bogus calls.

“As far as a fraudulent misrepresentation where someone is accused falsely, I can’t think of hardly any occasions where that’s ever happened,” says Cindy James, assistant state auditor. “People take our hotline seriously. We do not have a significant number of calls of abuse.”

All anonymous reports made to the state hotline are directed to a special audit examiner who asks a series of questions to weed out misleading calls. Any information that is too vague or seemingly incredible does not prompt an investigation.

As a result of information gathered from the state’s anonymous tip line, the Kentucky auditor’s office has conducted several probing investigations over the years. In April 2004, for instance, the state auditor examined the western Kentucky city of Providence and found a discrepancy of $334,736 between payments credited to utility customer accounts and the deposit of utility receipts. Another tip led to the examination of the payroll inmate process at the Kentucky Department of Corrections.

Just months after a scorching audit found more than $500,000 in questionable spending, Blue Grass Airport in Lexington recently signed a contract with a third-party company to establish a phone and web-based anonymous reporting service. An airport spokesman said the tip line should be up in the next few weeks.

Earlier this year, the state auditor urged Metro to adopt a single, well-publicized tip line for its employees to report work-related ethics concerns. That recommendation came after Kentucky Auditor Crit Luallen issued a blistering audit of the Metro Department of Housing and Family Services, revealing gross mismanagement and lax controls that cost the city millions of dollars in federal funds.

Metro officials responded by saying they would take the state’s recommendation under consideration, but not before pointing out that several channels already exist for employees to file grievances, such as the Metro Police Public Integrity Unit, MetroCall and Human Resources.

But James says those avenues are not intended to receive anonymous calls about ethical misconduct.

The state auditor researched the Human Resources number, for instance, and found the number was primarily for prospective employees to call about hiring practices.

“People answering hotline calls need to be well-trained to get the appropriate information from the caller to take that to the next step,” she says. “So that’s not what was intended.”