City Solicitor John Curp and Ohio Ethics Commission Executive Director Paul Nick said in an Oct. 22 email exchange that it was OK for Vice Mayor Roxanne Qualls to retain her job as a realtor and vote in support of the streetcar project, even though the project could indirectly benefit Qualls by increasing property values — and therefore her compensation as a realtor — along the route.
The email exchange was provided to CityBeat and other media outlets after mayoral candidate John Cranley criticized Qualls, who is also running for mayor, for the alleged conflict of interest at an Oct. 22 press conference.
Curp stated in an email to Nick that Qualls’ potential gains from the streetcar project are too speculative and indirect to present a conflict of interest or ethical violation because the real estate sales are “arms-length transactions between private parties” with a flat 1 to 2 percent fee.
Nick’s emailed response cited two previous Ohio Ethics Commission opinions to support Curp’s analysis.
“It would be unreasonable to hold that lawyers, accountants, insurance agents, and other professionals have an interest in the contracts of their business clients. In general, such professionals are not deemed to be interested in the business dealings of a client, merely because they receive fees for professional services,” according to a February 1986 opinion.
The opinion then clarifies that ethics violations must be directly tied to a project. For example, an insurance agent on City Council would violate ethics law if he or she voted on a construction contract in which his or her insurance agency is charged with handling bond sales for the contract in some way.
Curp also noted that Qualls had asked about the potential conflict of interest on “a minimum of two prior occasions.”
Nick told CityBeat in a phone interview that it’s normal for city officials to go through city solicitors before going to the Ohio Ethics Commission with an ethical question. If the city solicitor and commission agree a formal analysis isn’t necessary, the situation is resolved with brief guidance.
For Cranley, the concerns suggest a contradiction to his previously touted beliefs about the streetcar.
Supporters of the streetcar project, including Qualls,
often tout potential property value increases and the economic gains
they would bring to Cincinnati as a reason to back the project. The economic gains were supported by studies from consulting firm HDR and the University of Cincinnati, which found the streetcar would produce a three-to-one return on investment in Over-the-Rhine and downtown.
Critics, including Cranley, say such property value increases are overblown to falsely justify what they call a “pet project.”
But if the property values never materialize, Qualls isn’t financially benefiting in the way Cranley’s campaign described.
Fox 19 on Nov. 9 apologized for an ignorant comment made by news anchor Tricia Macke on her personal Facebook page last month. Macke’s comment, “Rachel Maddow is such an angry young man,” sparked outrage among gay-rights organizations for its depiction of MSNBC’s openly gay broadcaster as a man.
According to screen shots published by the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), Macke appeared to have missed the point when called out by a commenter for targeting Maddow’s sexual identity. Macke wrote, “you are right… I should have said antagonistic” but then told another commenter, “I knew what I was saying.”
GLAAD wrote: “Tricia Macke undoubtedly tried to insult Maddow because of their political differences, rather than simply because Maddow is gay — but her comments went much further than insulting Maddow's political leanings, and took issue with Maddow's gender, revealing an anti-gay (or at least anti-gender-nonconforming?) bias underlying her political beliefs.”
Fox 19 posted its apology along with a statement from Macke describing her comment as insensitive and inappropriate. Macke wrote: “I apologize to Ms. Maddow and any others who may have been offended by my comments, as they do not reflect my firm beliefs in individual and equal rights, and they certainly do not represent the opinions or position of my employer WXIX-TV."
Maddow, an openly gay MSNBC political analyst, is one of America’s highest-profile news personalities. She’s also a Stanford graduate with a doctorate in political science from Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes Scholar.
State Auditor Dave Yost released an audit today looking at Value Learning and Teaching (VLT) Academy’s 2010-2011 school year, and the findings are not pretty. The charter school, which is located in downtown Cincinnati, was found to be potentially overpaying in multiple instances — including potential conflicts of interest.
“Those who are entrusted with taxpayer dollars must take special care and spend them wisely,” Yost said in a statement. “This school appears to have management issues that must be addressed quickly.”
In a potential conflict of interest, the school paid Echole Harris, daughter of the school’s superintendent, $82,000 during the school year and $17,000 for a summer contract for the position of EMIS coordinator, who helps provide data from VLT Academy to the state. Mysteriously, the school did not disclose the summer contract in its financial statements. The school says the superintendent abstained from all decisions related to Harris and presented the summer contract to the school board. Still, Yost referred the situation to the Ohio Ethics Commission.
The audit also criticized VLT Academy for approving a $249,000 bid for janitorial services that were owned and provided by a school employee. The bid was the most expensive among other offers ranging between $82,000 and $135,600. According to the school’s own minutes, “Each company states that they can deliver a work product that will meet or exceed the standards provided in our checklist,” adding little justification to the high payment and potential conflict of interest. The school insists its pick was the best qualified because it offered additional services. The bid approval was also referred to the Ohio Ethics Commission.
The school was found to be overpaying its IT director as
well. Keenan Cooke’s salary for the 2010-2011 school year was supposed to
be $55,000, but the school overpaid him by $3,333 with no record of
intent. The state asked for Cooke and Judy McConnell, VLT Academy’s
fiscal officer, to return the excess payment to the state. The school acknowledged McConnell's responsibility.
To make the potentially excess payments worse, VLT Academy had a net asset deficiency of $412,754 as of June 30, 2011, according to the audit. The school promised the auditor it will cut costs and find revenue generators to make up for the loss.
Private prison critics have been proven right once again. Smuggling incidents are on the rise around Lake Erie Correctional Institution, which Ohio sold to the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) in 2011.
In a letter to Gov. John Kasich’s northeast Ohio liaison, Conneaut Councilman Neil LaRusch claimed a rise in contraband smuggling has forced local police to increase security around the CCA facility.
Since the end of 2012, four have been arrested and charged with smuggling. Another four were arrested Monday and police suspect they were in Conneaut for a smuggling job. According to the Star Beacon, the four suspects arrested Monday were only caught due to the increased police presence outside the Lake Erie prison.
LaRusch said Conneaut and its police department are already running tight budgets, and they can’t afford to continue padding prison security. He then asked the state and governor to help out with the situation.
The letter prompted a reaction from the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio (ACLU), which has staunchly opposed prison privatization in the state. In a statement, Mike Brickner, director of communications and public policy for the ACLU, said, “Unfortunately, this is a predictable pattern with private prisons. Promises of lower costs quickly morph into higher crime, increased burdens on local law enforcement, and in the end, a higher bill for taxpayers.”
He added, “This is not an anomaly. It is a predictable pattern. The private prison model is built on profit above all else. These facilities will cut corners and shift responsibility to taxpayers wherever necessary to maximize profits.”
The governor’s office and Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Correction (ODRC) could not be immediately reached for comment. This story will be updated if a response becomes available.
Update (5:00 p.m.): Col. John Born, superintendent of the Ohio State Highway Patrol, responded to the councilman's letter. In his own letter, Born doesn't contradict that there's a rise in drug smuggling, but he gives the issue more context.
Born wrote criminal incidents at the Lake Erie prison have actually decreased. He acknowledges drug smuggling cases went up from four in 2011 to seven in 2012, but he says drug cases have gone down at the prison since 2010.
He also claims seven other state prisons have seen a greater rise in drug smuggling. Born frames the issue in a national context: “Unfortunately, despite best efforts, the national problem of illegal drug usage and drug trafficking continues to plague our nation.”
Regarding state assistance, Born wrote the Ohio State Highway Patrol does not have the authority to strengthen security in order to directly prevent drug smuggling: “It is important to point out the Ohio State Highway Patrol's legal authority and corresponding duties prior to the sale of the prison and after the sale remain largely unchanged. Ohio troopers did not have original jurisdiction on private property off institution grounds while under state operations nor do they today.”
He adds the Ohio State Highway Patrol has already deployed more cruisers at the prison, but he believes local law enforcement are still the best option for responding to incidents.
JoEllen Smith, spokesperson for ODRC, wrote in an email, “DRC will be in communication with the parties involved to ensure any remaining concerns are addressed.”
CityBeat previously covered private prisons in-depth (“Liberty for Sale,” issue of Sept. 19). Within a week of the story going to stands, ODRC Director Gary Mohr said the state would not privatize any more prisons. On the same day of his announcement, Mohr apparently received an audit that found the CCA facility was only meeting 66.7 percent of state standards (“Prison Privatization Blues,” issue of Oct. 10).
Since the Watergate-era, Ohio has had a panel with authority to penalize those who deliberately disseminate false information during elections. Cincinnati’s conservative anti-tax group COAST — which has been outspoken against the streetcar project — has chafed that it might someday run afoul of the Ohio Elections Commission for spouting off. COAST sees the Election Commission’s job of policing political discourse as creating a government-controlled censorship panel. It asked: How could anybody in Columbus have the power to decide what is true and false in political advertising? Free speech should trump the Election Commission’s power to zip lips, or levy penalties over false statements.
So COAST went to court and filed a challenge last year that asked a U.S. court in Cincinnati for an injunction putting the Ohio Elections Commission on ice. Last week, U.S. District Judge Michael R. Barrett (a former chairman of the Hamilton County Republican Party) tossed the COAST case out of court.
Barrett agreed with COAST that the back-and-forth of political speech is an important right. But he declared COAST had not shown its ability to make provocative statements had been damped, or “chilled,” by the existence of the Ohio Elections Commission. The lawsuit is styled COAST Candidates PAC, et al v. Ohio Elections Commission, el al, Case No. 1:11cv775, U.S. District Court, Southern District of Ohio.
Barrett said that if COAST had admitted it planned to lie it might have a better case. He wrote: “Plaintiffs responded that while they do not intend to engage in false speech, their speech has been chilled out of fear that any provocative statement might be challenged as false by political opponents. ... Plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate something ‘more' than a subjective allegation of chill in this case.”
Barrett said there was no proof of actual or imminent harm. In other words, nobody had tried to make COAST shut up. Barrett wrote off COAST’s worries as veering into sheer fantasy.
would need to make some statement in the future, then Cincinnatians for
Progress, or some other group or individual, would need to file a
groundless complaint against plaintiffs and defendants would then fail
to follow the provisions in Section 3517.22. The scenario is far too speculative.”
The legal battle started last fall over the streetcar referendum and 20 different COAST-linked tweets against the project. One said the Cincinnati Fire Department had been browned out because city money had been used to “pay for streetcar boondoggle.” When streetcar backers filed a complaint with the Ohio Elections Commission last year, the panel cleared COAST. After citizens voted to continue the streetcar project, COAST said they were under ongoing threat of being hauled before the state commission and filed the federal lawsuit.
The challenged state law against political lies says nobody can, “post,
publish, circulate, distribute or otherwise disseminate, a false
statement, either knowing the same to be false or acting with reckless
disregard of whether it was false or not, that is designed to promote
the adoption or defeat of any ballot proposition or issue.”
And it is still on the books.
Another round of layoffs hit Cincinnati's only remaining daily newspaper this afternoon. Various reports indicate between 12 and 20 people were let go at The Enquirer.
The next president of the United States, Barack Obama, officially has announced a campaign rally for Sunday evening at UC's Nippert Stadium. Gates open at 6 p.m., and he's scheduled to speak at 9. Check out the Obama web site for details.
It's fitting that he makes his final area appearance of the campaign on the UC campus, where he held such a stirring rally in February before the Ohio primary.
If you have time, do yourself a favor and go see Obama live tomorrow. Then help him win the election on Tuesday.
If you're still undecided, check out CityBeat's endorsement of Obama here.
In the ongoing saga of Western & Southern vs. the Anna Louise Inn, there have been several court cases and zoning rulings, most of which have been appealed by one side or the other. Today it was the Cincinnati Zoning Board of Appeals’ turn to rule on something that’s already been ruled on, and it went in favor of the Anna Louise Inn.
The Board upheld a certificate of appropriateness for the Anna Louise Inn’s planned renovation, which essentially also upholds the Historic Conservation Board’s right to issue a conditional use permit — at least for now. Western & Southern is expected to appeal that permit, granted by the Conservation Board Aug. 27, before its 30-day window to do so expires.
Before this series of appeals can play out, the 1st District Court of Appeals will hear arguments in the Anna Louise Inn’s appeal of Judge Norbert Nadel’s May 27 ruling, which set in motion the Inn’s attempts to secure zoning approval from the Historical Conservation Board in the first place.
(All of this could have been avoided if Western & Southern would have purchased the Anna Louise Inn when it had the chance. CityBeat previously reported the details of Western & Southern’s failure to purchase the Inn and the company’s subsequent attempts to force the Inn out of the neighborhood here.)
About 40 people attended today’s hearing, including City Councilman Wendell Young, who said he supports the Anna Louise Inn but was not there to testify on its behalf.
By upholding the certificate of appropriateness, the ruling keeps alive a conditional use permit that could allow the Anna Louise Inn to move forward with a $13 million renovation of its historic building, once the expected appeals process plays out. (CityBeat covered the Aug. 27 Historical Conservation Board hearing here.)
The Board heard brief arguments from lawyers for both Western & Southern and Cincinnati Union Bethel and then entered executive session for about 15 minutes before ruling in favor of the Anna Louise Inn.
Western & Southern lawyer Francis Barrett, who is the brother of Western & Southern CEO John Barrett and a member of the University of Cincinnati Board of Trustees, told CityBeat after the meeting that he disagreed with the board’s finding because a designed expansion of the building’s fifth floor has not yet had its use approved.
“With this case, the Historical Conservation Board is basically approving for the certificate of appropriateness the design of the building,” Barrett said. “But the design included an expansion of the fifth floor, and until that use issue is resolved the code reads, in my opinion, you can’t approve the design because the use hasn’t been approved.”
Barrett during the hearing read a written statement to the board arguing two main points: that the Historic Conservation Board didn’t have the jurisdiction to grant the certificate of appropriateness; and even if it did, Barrett argued, the physical expansion planned makes it a non-conforming use which wouldn’t qualify for the building permit.
Cincinnati Union Bethel attorney Tim Burke told the Board that the Anna Louise Inn is not seeking a permit for non-conforming use because it already received a conditional use permit from the Historic Conservation Board.
“Western & Southern is doing everything it can to block this renovation from happening,” Burke told the Board.
At the Historic Conservation Board hearing last month
Western & Southern tried paint a picture of the Anna Louise Inn’s
residents contributing to crime in the area because a condition of the
conditional use permit is that the building’s use will not be
detrimental to public health and safety or negatively affect property
values in the neighborhood. But the Board granted the permit, stating
that the Anna Louise Inn will not be detrimental to public health and
safety or harmful to nearby properties in the neighborhood and that the
Board found no direct evidence connecting residents of the Anna Louise
Inn to criminal activity in the neighborhood. Western & Southern has until next week to appeal that ruling.