Road to The Banks Starts in Atlanta
As a group of Cincinnati and Hamilton County officials today board the private jet of Reds owner Bob Castellini, they will each give the millionaire $233.63 to pay for their air fare to Atlanta.
The city council members and county commissioner taking the quick jaunt to Dixieland decided to pay the tab to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest and ensure their compliance with city and state ethics laws.
Joining Castellini on the trip are council members Jeff Berding and David Crowley, County Commissioner Pat DeWine, attorney Tom Gabelman and businessman Steve Love. Like Castellini, Gabelman sits on a five-member advisory panel that will recommend a developer to build The Banks, a mix of offices, shops and housing planned along Cincinnati’s riverfront. Love is drafting policies to include minority contractors on the project.
The officials on the trip will tour Atlantic Station, a residential and retail project in Atlanta that was developed by AIG Global Real Estate Investment Corp. AIG is among the finalists being considered to build The Banks.
The advisory panel, known as the Banks Working Group, is expected to announce its recommendation at 10 a.m. Friday, and AIG appears to be the frontrunner. Any recommendation still must go before Cincinnati City Council and the Hamilton County Commission for approval.
Seven remaining council members were invited on the trip, but they declined or couldn’t make it on such short notice; County Commissioner Todd Portune also declined. Mayor Mark Mallory, County Commissioner Phil Heimlich and some Working Group members flew to Atlanta last month on Castellini’s jet to tour the project.
Councilwoman Leslie Ghiz declined the trip because she wants to make certain she can attend a public forum on crime that city council has planned for 7 p.m. tonight at the Hirsch Recreation Center in Avondale. She worried that today’s rainy weather would cause the group to return too late this evening.
“I’m praying they get back in time for this tonight, because this is a heckuva lot more important than going down to look at that,” Ghiz said.
Crowley initially prepared a voucher today to have his trip paid by his council office’s budget, but withdrew it after further consideration. The elected officials will pay the fare out of their own pockets, they said.
Under Ohio ethics laws, public officials aren’t permitted to accept free gifts or travel from an “improper source,” which generally is defined as someone doing business or seeking business with a government office or agency or who has a vested interest in a pending decision. Also, state law doesn’t allow gifts that would constitute a “substantial or improper influence in their performance of duties.”
Some states have established a set dollar amount under which officials can accept small gifts or meals but Ohio leaves the amount open to interpretation, according to Susan Willeke of the Ohio Ethics Commission.
Further, Cincinnati’s administrative code provides more ethical guidelines, saying, “Public office should not be used for personal gain.” It tells officials “to refrain from securing special privileges or exemptions for one’s self or one’s relatives or other persons that are not available to all citizens” and also “to avoid receiving, soliciting or otherwise obtaining anything of value from any other public official, employee or citizen which is intended to influence the performance of official duties.”
In the past, Castellini has offered free tickets to city council members for Reds Opening Day, but some members returned them.
— Kevin Osborne