The Federal Bureau of Investigation is looking for potential misconduct in Louisville Metro government, questioning several lawmakers and quizzing others about council activities.
Four Metro council members—all contacted independently—and a council aide confirmed with WFPL and the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting that they had spoken with agents as part of a federal inquiry into Metro government.
FBI agents also attended a Metro Ethics Commission meeting this week and interviewed a local political activist who has filed ethics complaints against two councilmen.
The agents expressed a broad interest in Metro government, according to those interviewed. An agent also sent an introductory e-mail last week to a Metro council member.
“My partner and I have been tasked with identifying any issues of interest to the FBI within city government,” the agent wrote in the e-mail, which carried the subject line “Meet And Greet.”
Councilman Tom Owen said the FBI called his office and left a message with an aide. He said he does not know the nature of the federal inquiry and has yet to return the call. Three other council members spoke with WFPL and KyCIR on the condition of anonymity for fear of political retaliation from their colleagues.
In response to questions from WFPL and the KyCIR, the FBI’s Louisville field office e-mailed the following statement: “The FBI does not currently have an open investigation on a specific allegation or individual.”
In September, FBI Agent Brett Johnson first approached a Metro councilman and an aide for a meeting. The two agents asked about the council’s use of discretionary funds and the council’s relationship with Jefferson County judges, according to the aide.
“It was purely just about, ‘Explain to us how Neighborhood Development Funds work and Capitol Infrastructure Funds,’” the aide said. The agents didn’t explain why those matters were of interest.
In recent weeks, investigators asked about ethics complaints filed against Council President Jim King, said another council member. That source said the FBI asked about King’s business dealings as they relate to the Metro Council and his personal income. The agents didn’t elaborate, the source said.
The council president released a statement Friday afternoon, noting that he had not been contacted by the FBI. King stated that his office reached out to the agency and has been “advised that no Council member, including myself, is a target or subject of an investigation.”
“We were advised that the investigators are conducting a background investigation, educating themselves about aspects of Louisville Metro Government and its practices, policies and procedures,” the statement read.
Mayor Greg Fischer’s office has not been contacted by the FBI, said Chris Poynter, the mayor’s spokesman.
FBI agents appeared at a Metro Ethics Commission meeting Thursday afternoon. There, commission members voted to postpone discussion of an ethics complaint against King because the complainant, west Louisville resident and political activist Janice Rucker, had yet to receive a copy of King’s 15-page response to her allegations. King did not attend the meeting.
The agents met with Rucker for more than an hour after Thursday’s commission meeting.
“They asked me what did I have and where did I get the information,” Rucker said of the conversation with the FBI agents. “They asked me about King and why did I file the complaint against him.”
“I told them I saw some unethical things going on,” Rucker added.
Rucker said a federal agent asked to look at one of Rucker’s ethics complaints, compiled in a thick, three-ring binder. She showed it to them. The investigators did not inquire about any other politician, Rucker recalled.
Rucker has been a thorn in the side of two council members for some time.
Last year, she accused Councilman Owen of profiting from land and loan deals, and King of voting on issues she said were a conflict of interest. In an earlier complaint she filed with the commission, Rucker claimed Owen used his government position to secure a $600,000 federal loan and that King, the president and CEO of King Southern Bank, voted on projects in which his bank was involved. The commission dismissed both of those complaints in December.
The complaint against King was dismissed because it wasn’t specific enough. The Owen complaint was dismissed because Owen had received a 2009 advisory opinion from the Ethics Commission in 2009 saying that he did not receive a benefit that the average citizen could not have received.
In Rucker’s latest round of ethics complaints, she alleged that King earned large sums of money by knowing what developments are being considered, loaning those developments money through his position as president of King Southern Bank and then voting on those developments as a council member.
Owen said Friday that the FBI’s phone call has piqued his curiously. “I have no idea,” he added. “On these kind of things that involve rumor or innuendo there’s an overreaction, so I haven’t inquired any further.”
Owen noted that he received a text message Thursday evening from Council President King. Owen said the text read: “I heard rumor FBI is interviewing our council members and that you’ve been contacted. Do you know what is up?”
Owen said he told King he was contacted but that he had not pressed the matter further. Owen said his office didn’t call the FBI agent back “because there’s nothing we had to talk to him about.”
King said Friday that he supported the FBI’s efforts and will cooperate with the agency. “Educating our citizens regarding government practices and procedures leads to more transparency. I realize much of what we do here can seem confusing or arcane.”
Regarding the ethics complaints currently filed against him, he said: “I think those will be dismissed as well.” King declined to comment further, nothing that the complaints are still pending.
In the past three years, two other Metro council members have been hit with ethics charges and faced removal proceedings as a result.
In 2011, the late Councilwoman Judy Green was removed from office for violating the city’s code of ethics. Fellow lawmakers found her guilty of using taxpayer dollars to benefit her family members and rerouting funds to unauthorized groups through a grant.
Last August, Councilwoman Barbara Shanklin also faced ouster from office for similar ethics violations. Shanklin avoided removal by a razor-thin margin, though a majority of lawmakers said she showed misconduct and willful neglect.
Council members from both parties have decried the verdict, saying it compromised the integrity of Metro government and has injured the public’s trust in them.
This story was reported by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting and 89.3 WFPL. Both are part of Louisville Public Media.