Ethics Commission Remains Without Subpoena Power

The Louisville Metro Ethics Commission still cannot compel witnesses to testify, which could impact a possible hearing involving Councilwoman Barbara Shanklin.

Over the past year the commission has addressed a number of procedural and policy weaknesses it discovered during the course of two hearings against former Councilwoman Judy Green. The panel has since hired a full-time legal counsel and requested the council tinker with parts of the city code of ethics.

But in its 2011 annual report the commission said the lack of subpoena powers remains a serious challenge to its ability to enforce the law and is ultimately a question of state law that the General Assembly must address.

“At this point in time without that power people come voluntarily and provide testimony on their own,” says Ethics Commission Chairman Jonathan Ricketts. “And without being able to compel their attendance we’re limited in what we can bring and evaluate.”

During the Green hearings several key witnesses refused to testify before the panel, but were eventually subpoenaed by the Metro Council Court during her removal trial from office.

Ricketts says the panel had enough information during the Green hearings, but being unable to force witnesses to testify makes their work more difficult.

“I believe that we were able to make a well informed decision based upon the evidence we had in front of us, but of course I think we would liked to have heard from some witnesses who refused to appear,” he says.

Last week, watchdog group Common Cause of Kentucky filed a complaint against Shanklin citing reports in The Courier-Journal over public funds used for an upholstery program. Those stories involve some of Shanklin's relatives and several neighborhood association representatives who could decline to answer the panel's question if a hearing is held.

Since January, the Government Accountability and Ethics Committee have held several meetings to amend the ethics ordinance. Among the changes were giving the complainant the right to an attorney, addressing the timeliness of verdicts and punishing those who knowingly file a false complaint.

Last week, Mayor Greg Fischer appointed Susan Rhodes from the University of Louisville to fill a vacancy on the 7-member panel.

The commission is scheduled to meet this Thursday.

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