CINCINNATI — The City of Cincinnati endured one of its most difficult periods in government history two years ago as it watched one-third of City Council arrested on federal corruption charges.
What You Need To Know
- The City of Cincinnati has a new Office of Ethics and Good Government
- It was born out of an era of scandal at City Hall that saw three City Council members arrested on federal corruption charges
- The office will focus on development issues, but it will also work to address other government operations
- Job-specific training will be in place for all city employees
Federal prosecutors accused City Hall of having a “culture of corruption.” Public confidence was shaken.
Over the past two years and two administrations, the City of Cincinnati has worked to help reshape that image. And one way it’s doing so is through the creation of the Office of Ethics and Good Government.
The office’s job is to educate and train elected officials and all city staff on ethics-related issues, ranging from conflicts of interest to campaign contribution matters. It also investigates suspected cases of impropriety submitted through a new hotline.
The three-person office opened in January. It’s led by Christopher Liu, a longtime attorney in the city’s Law Department.
“This is something that we should have had a long time ago,” said Council member Greg Landsman, who proposed creating the new office. “In the wake of all the chaos and craziness of the past couple of years, we needed to do everything in our power to restore public trust.”
Landsman is the only current member of City Council or elected official at City Hall who was in office when federal agents arrested — Democrat Tamaya Dennard, Republican Jeff Pastor and Democrat and onetime mayoral frontrunner P.G. Sittenfeld.
All the charges centered on taking bribes from developers looking to do business with the city.
Dennard pleaded guilty in November 2020 to federal corruption charges and received an 18-month sentence in federal prison for accepting $15,000 in exchange for a favorable vote on a development project.
Pastor and Sittenfeld’s cases are still working their way through the legal system.
“It was a black eye for the city,” said Larry Eiser, a longtime West Side resident who has worked with the City of Cincinnati over the years to help transform the business district in the city’s largest neighborhood, Westwood.
As a member of Westwood Community Redevelopment Corporation (WestCURC), Eiser worked with the city to help redevelop an old firehouse into a popular restaurant. He also played a key role in the neighborhood’s development of a Designated Outdoor Refreshment Area, or DORA.
In recent years, the city has done a lot of “progressive” developments in neighborhoods that desperately needed investment, Eiser said, such as Over-the-Rhine, College Hill and Westwood.
When Eiser saw the headlines about the arrests, he was “shocked and saddened.” Not only because he had “a high opinion of” some of those arrested, but also because he felt the scandals could cast a “dark cloud” over some of the city’s development efforts.
“Obviously it wasn’t everyone,” Eiser said. He thinks it’s unfair to paint everyone with a broad brush. Most city employees are “good people trying to work hard for the city,” he said. “But that situation was really disappointing and really embarrassing for Cincinnati.”
Working to reestablish public trust
It was important for the city to take drastic steps to restore public confidence that the government was working fairly on the citizens’ behalf.
“We want people to look at City Hall and the changes and say, ‘OK, I trust this group; I trust this institution,’” Landsman said. “That’s what matters most.”
Landsman called the creation of the Office of Ethics and Good Government arguably the most important of the reforms because it established “real leadership and infrastructure” to ensure that whatever City Council passes is on the up-and-up.
As head of the department, Liu works alongside two paralegals, but they also have the support of the Office of Administrative Hearings, which handles things like rulings on city parking tickets and various city codes, including building and zoning codes, which are vital to the development process.
Another important reform was the creation of an Economic Development Reform Panel in December 2020.
Council asked the panel — made up of lawyers, business people and members of the community — to evaluate the city’s existing development process and recommend how to keep it as free as possible from political influence.
The chairperson, Ann Marie Tracey, is a retired Hamilton County Common Pleas judge and former Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Ohio. She once served as chair of the Ohio Ethics Commission.
The panel came up with a number of ideas the Office of Ethics and Good Government will implement and follow up on.
One was the creation of a “City Business List,” a publicly available document that shows the “financially interested persons” associated with development projects making their way through the legislative process at City Hall.
The database will include developers looking for financial grants or loans valued at $100,000 or more per year, the purchase or lease of city property valued at $200,000 or more, tax incentives or zoning changes. The goal is to promote transparency and help avoid conflicts of interest. Placing all that information on an online web portal will allow the public to know what development deals are in front of City Council and who has a financial stake in the outcome of that vote, Liu said.
Anyone on that list can’t donate to political campaigns to city elected officials while their motion is before City Council. Likewise, the mayor and members of City Council won’t be able to solicit donations from anyone on that list.
Office staff have worked on the portal since its inception in January, Liu said. They’re actively working to get it up and running.
To promote awareness of City Business List disclosure process, the Office of Ethics and Good Government will host a pair of hour-long public information sessions and workshops at City Hall.
The dates are:
Friday, May 20 from 1:30 to 2:30 p.m.
Monday, May 23 from 11:00 a.m. to noon
Liu plans to record an additional training session and post it on the office’s website.
“We’re trying very hard to balance the need for transparency without creating additional bureaucracy that makes it difficult for people to navigate the system,” he added. “It’s really important that we implement all of this in a thoughtful way.”
Liu’s team also oversees a “Ethics, Fraud, Waste & Abuse” hotline — both a phone number and a website — for residents or city employees to “safely and anonymously” report any concerns they might have. They’ll also investigate any complaints.
Any suspected violations of campaign finance rules would go to the Cincinnati Election Commission. The agency would review them to determine if they have merit, and then fine or penalize them, Liu said. More serious offenses would make their way to the Ohio Ethics Commission or possibly law enforcement.
Not just political officials
The work of the Ethics and Good Government office won’t solely focus on elected officials. While those are likely to be the highest-profile cases, ethics issues can happen at any level of government.
Ohio ethics laws apply to all city employees, regardless if they’re appointed or hired to a city department. And it’s not just those who work in development either — any city employee with outward-facing responsibilities, whether they work in Public Services or Police or Buildings and Inspections.
Liu and his team will handle training on Ohio ethics law across all city offices and departments.
One of the biggest challenges is avoiding potential conflicts of interest. Those aren’t illegal, Liu said, but it’s how an employee handles them when they arise.
For instance, a city employee can’t accept a gift from somebody appreciative of the work they do and they can’t accept supplemental compensation for the work they perform as part of their city employment. They can’t go back and offer somebody additional services based on what they learned on the job.
“The folks who depend on city services have to trust and believe in everyone, every person in city government,” Landsman said. The candidate for U.S. House of Representatives (OH-1) feels all taxpayers need to “believe that their city government treats everyone equally.”
“They’ve got to be able to trust them, and they’ve got to know they’ve been trained well and will be accountable if they break the rules,” he added. “It’s both obvious and really important that this training and these standards include every single person who represents the city government.”
Ethics training isn’t new to City Council. In years past, all City of Cincinnati employees would gather in large groups to sit through a roughly one-hour interactive presentation from the Ohio Ethics Commission. But the training was fairly broad and not specifically geared toward what people actually were working on, Liu said.
The new training covers a lot of different scenarios. Some of them are based on advisory opinions from the Ohio Ethics Commission, where somebody has encountered this issue. Others come from feedback or questions received from city employees.
Liu described the job-specific training to “meet people where they are” and to focus specifically on the most common pitfalls they might come across in their actual jobs.
“The passion around the creation of this office and these reforms was to ensure — long after we’re (this mayor and members of City Council) gone — all the things that need to happen are going to get done and in the right way,” Landsman said.
Eiser feels the Office of Ethics and Good Government and other reforms will ease some of those concerns from residents. The new tools and resources may also help clear up some of what he called “gray area” — things that weren’t explicitly spelled out as right or wrong, but may raise the public’s collective eyebrow.
“I don’t believe everyone was doing (something illegal) back then, but I appreciate the city taking action to put improved checks and balances in place to minimize the chances that anything could occur in the future,” he said.