Ethically challenged

Flaws in Metro Ethics Commission hearings remain unresolved thanks to General Assembly’s failure to act

Mar 20, 2013 at 5:00 am

With a storyline mirroring the saga of former Councilwoman Judy Green from 2011, last week the Metro Ethics Commission unanimously ruled that Councilwoman Barbara Shanklin intentionally violated several sections of the city’s ethics code for her personal benefit, recommending that Metro Council remove her from office.

Three of these ethics charges surround Shanklin steering $75,000 worth of Metro Neighborhood Development Funds to the Petersburg-Newburg Improvement Association. The District 2 councilwoman was not just a board member, process agent, and signatory for a large majority of the association’s checks, but she failed to disclose this relationship to Metro Council when the funds were approved.

The commission also found Shanklin violated ethics law by hiring her grandson as a staff member for years, though dismissed charges that she paid him more than others doing the same job.

While the commission found ample evidence against Shanklin on the remaining charge — obtaining funding for an upholstery training program intended for ex-offenders that was used almost exclusively by her and family members — they could not determine guilt due to a lack of subpoena power to obtain the necessary testimony. The commission did, however, recommend the council look into this charge further.

From this point, Metro Council would have to form a charging committee of five members to recommend expulsion, after which 14 of the 20 remaining members could vote to oust Shanklin, a Democrat.

In a joint statement following the ethics ruling, Council President Jim King, D-10, and Government Accountability and Ethics Committee chairs Jerry Miller, R-19, and Madonna Flood, D-24, stressed that council members will examine the recommendations without public discussion of their merits, as they are all now potential jurors. “We as members of the Metro Council must have the opportunity to fully review the findings, discuss this with our legal counsel and come to a satisfactory solution,” the statement read. “We assure you this process will move forward as quickly as possible while also protecting fairness for all those involved.”

Shanklin — who was on the charging committee against Green in 2011 — has not yet made a public statement, though her attorney, Aubrey Williams, characterized the commission’s ruling as “lies” and “garbage,” adding that he will appeal the decisions in circuit court.

King would not give a timeline on the formation of a charging committee or commencement of an expulsion trial, nor is there any word on the status of Louisville Metro Police’s criminal investigation of Shanklin via their Public Integrity Unit.

Until those details emerge, significant Ethics Commission weaknesses evident in both the Green and Shanklin hearings — particularly a lack of subpoena power — will remain in place due to inaction during this year’s General Assembly in Frankfort.

Following the 2011 trial of former Councilwoman Judy Green, members of the Ethics Commission publicly called for their body to have subpoena power to compel witness testimony, noting multiple witnesses refused to appear, making it difficult to gather evidence.

The next year, Shanklin’s ethics hearing made this still-present weakness even more glaring, as not only did multiple witnesses refuse to testify, but Shanklin’s attorney also advised his client to walk out of the hearing two days in a row.

Facing media criticism over the walkouts, Williams penned an op-ed in The Courier-Journal that compared forcing Shanklin to cooperate in her prosecution to cooperating “in one’s own hanging” or “in the rape of (a man’s) wife.”

In January, bipartisan council leadership made their intended solution clear with a resolution asking the state legislature to grant such subpoena powers to the Ethics Commission. Despite the support of the majority of the Democratic caucus, however, several council Democrats unexpectedly stalled the resolution in committee, concerned that the commission would abuse its subpoena power.

In a Republican caucus meeting two days later, Councilman Ken Fleming, R-7, suspected hesitant Democrats were “afraid of something” and it confirmed his suspicions of “what’s going on in certain parts of this community.”

Despite the hesitation of a few council Democrats, state Sen. Julie Denton, R-Louisville, went forward with such a bill (SB 117), which passed with only one dissenting vote in the Senate. It then passed the House Local Government Committee unanimously with the support of its chairman, Rep. Steve Riggs, D-Louisville.

However, the bill went no further in the General Assembly, which ended last week, as Democratic leadership failed to call the bill for a vote on the House floor, effectively killing it until next year.

According to Councilman Jerry Miller, the bill was likely the victim of partisan Frankfort gamesmanship, specifically engineered by Rep. Larry Clark, D-Louisville, who originally voiced favorable words for subpoena power in a letter to council.

Last month, Clark filed a bill prohibiting local governments from paying the legal fees of city employees named in an ethics complaint, noting that Louisville has paid more than $180,000 in taxpayer money for the defense of Green and Shanklin.

However, members of both parties on Metro Council opposed the bill, noting that frivolous charges could end up suing council members out of office, as well as harm rank-and-file employees who might not be able to afford such legal fees. Ultimately, the Senate ignored Clark’s bill, and Miller believes Clark in turn took it out on SB 117.

“My understanding is that since the House bill that was advanced by Rep. Clark was not heard by the Senate, I think he exerted his influence to ensure SB 117 wasn’t heard in the House,” Miller says. “I think (Clark) would probably say, ‘Chalk it up to gridlock.”

Neither Clark, nor Democratic House leadership — of which he is a member — returned inquiries from LEO on the curious fate of the subpoena bill.

Councilman Miller hopes that Metro Council, Sen. Denton and Rep. Clark can coordinate on a compromise for both bills leading into next year’s General Assembly. Until then, Louisville can only hope that such ethics hearings for council members do not continue to be a yearly tradition.