Louisville Metro Councilman David Yates, D-25, is raising ethics concerns about allegations that fellow Councilman Dan Johnson, D-21, made an offer to buy the historic Colonial Gardens property in the midst of a city funded feasibility study.
The council spent $14,000 to study the economic viability of the Iroquois Park corridor—the southwest Louisville neighborhood that contains the property. Five council members, including Johnson and Yates, contributed to the grant from their Neighborhood Development Funds for the non-profit Southwest Dream Team to commission the feasibility study.
In a July 23 letter to Johnson and the county attorney, Yates says constituents have told him that Johnson, who is a real estate agent, is seeking to buy the property and profit from any redevelopment projects.
“My concern lies with the possible ethical implications of what may appear to be an attempt by you as an elected official to profit from the purchase of said property. Let me be clear, I do not have firsthand knowledge, other than your statement, of any wrong doing; nor am I making any allegations that you acted with malice.”
When the grant for the study was first announced in April, it was heralded as an effort to give developers insight into how to balance “preservation and economic development.”
It also touted major improvements in the area such as a new splash park, renovations to the Iroquois Amphitheater and Sunny Hill Pavilion and a newly paved road to the top of the park. Several of those improvements were funded with council discretionary funds, which could be expanded with recommendations of the study.
In a telephone interview, Johnson declined to confirm or deny with WFPL that he sought to purchase Colonial Gardens from its current owners, adding there is no documentation that can be applied under state law.
“A real estate offer is nothing unless it’s written. And I have never made a real estate offer,” he says. “I’ve never made any sort of offer whatsoever. And if I did it’s my businesses and I had the right to. And I don’t have to tell you about it.”
When asked if he made a specific verbal offer to the owners, Johnson refused to comment. However, various sources tell WFPL Johnson admitted to making a verbal offer to buy the historic site.
“He had made me aware after that fact that he had actually made some sort of offer on the property, but not any details,” says Southwest Dream Team President Vince Jarboe. “Again, I don’t know any of the details but he tell me after the fact that he did make some sort of offer at some point in the past.”
Democratic Caucus Director Elizabeth Hoffman says the two lawmakers had a heated discussion about the allegations last week, and Johnson admitted to making a verbal offer to buy Colonial Gardens.
“I was a bit taken aback,” she says. “Given all of the discussions that we have had about that property as of late it was surprising. Certainly we are just not beginning to understand the dynamics of this situation. We're all concerned about it if there's a problem and we are trying to find that out.”
The findings of the feasibility study are still incomplete, but lawmakers and Dream Team officials have discussed its process, timeline and preliminary reports. Under the city's ethics ordinance, it is against the law for council members to use their position or information obtained through Metro Government business for personal financial gain.
In a July 25 letter, attorney Thomas McAdams, who is representing Johnson, accuses Yates of slander and threatens legal action against him if those accusations continue. He says Yates is misleading city officials, adding council members can buy or sell property as they see fit.
“Your communication makes the implicit suggestion that if Mr. Johnson did, in fact, make an “offer” oral or otherwise to the owner's (sic) of the Colonial Gardens property, that constitutes some legal or ethical misconduct,” he says. “Your limited legal experience should indicate to you that such an offer—if in actuality made—would not constitute either illegal or unethical behavior.”