Wed May 22, 2013
Ethics Watchdog Group Requests Councilman Dan Johnson Step Down from Shanklin Removal Trial
The chairman of an ethics watchdog group is questioning whether Louisville Metro Councilman Dan Johnson, D-21, should serve as a juror on fellow council member Barbara Shanklin’s removal trial.
The 20-member council court convened earlier this week to schedule a hearing after the Ethics Commission ruled Shanklin violated five provisions of the city’s code of ethics.
City lawmakers will sit as a jury to decide whether to oust Shanklin in a trial beginning July 23.
Last September, however, Shanklin’s attorney Aubrey Williams entered an affidavit alleging Johnson told him the commission was prejudiced against his client, and mishandled the proceedings.
"Johnson called ... and informed me that his wife’s sister’s husband was a friend of a certain Commission member, who had told the friend that the commissioners were out to get Barbara Shanklin," Williams wrote. "That is to say that they had made up their minds to rule against her. He stated that he did not think they were going to be fair to her when the hearing got underway."
Common Cause of Kentucky Chairman Richard Beliles filed the initial ethics complaint against Shanklin. He says Johnson’s prior interference in the case raises concerns if the south Louisville Democrat can adequately serve on the jury.
"It’s really important that the public has confidence in whatever jury. So from that standpoint, reading about and hearing about the questions about Metro Councilman Dan Johnson, it would seem to me that perhaps he should consider recusing himself from that jury," he says.
Lawmakers who are sworn-in on the council court will decide whether to remove Shanklin or dismiss the charges by a two-thirds vote.
The Jefferson County Attorney's office has repeatedly told council members to avoid commenting to the media regarding the Shanklin case. The city's legal counsel has also advised city lawmakers against speaking to either Shanklin or the attorneys involved.
The ethics law does not speak to dismissing potential jurors in a removal trial, however. And there appears to be no legal ramifications if a council member ignores that legal advice as Johnson allegedly did.
"It is a suggestion that's been made repeatedly. It's simply in the best interest to maintain the integrity of the process," says Jefferson County attorney spokesman Bill Patteson. "It's a very serious undertaking and it needs to be taken with great seriousness by all parties involved. So I would say we are uniformly concerned about the integrity of the process and seeing it through."
Asked if the county attorney had spoken with Johnson about him contacting Shanklin's attorney last fall, Patteson declined to comment saying the matter was attorney-client privilege.
Johnson was also criticized by council Democrats and Republicans last fall for pushing to delay the proceedings because he feared it would hurt Democrats in the 2012 election.
At the time, Councilman Brent Ackerson, D-26, who was up for re-election in November, told The Courier-Journal that Johnson's actions were "improper." Council GOP leaders went further and said the conversation with Williams needed to be investigated for possible ethical violations.
Attorney David Tachau is the prosecutor in the removal trial. He says the five-member charging committee that decided to impeach Shanklin will address Johnson serving on the jury with Council President Jim King, D-10, before the trial begins.
During the removal trial of the late Judy Green, King himself stepped down as chair of the court after the former councilwoman made numerous allegations that he was biased. At the time, King told fellow lawmakers he had too much respect for the council to risk hurting the case after Green’s accusations.
Asked if Johnson should serve as a juror on the removal trial, King told WFPL his goal is to protect the "integrity of the process," and he would rely on the county attorney to provide guidance on any legal questions.
For ethics observers the burden remains on Johnson to answer questions about the conversation and if he plans to serve on the jury.
"It causes a question enough, and I would hope Councilman Johnson would think about that long and hard before he agrees to sit on that jury," says Beliles.
Johnson did not return repeated requests for comment.