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City to Send Letter to County Prosecutor, but Won't Say Who Wrote It

This article has been updated to clarify that the city's legal department provided edits to the letter that will be delivered to the county attorney and the commonwealth's attorney. This information was provided to The River City News at 2 p.m. on Friday by City Solicitor Frank Warnock who said there had been a miscommunication at the city building in relation to who had assisted with edits.

In a special meeting Thursday night, the Covington city commission continued to grapple with issues that have plagued it all year: ongoing distrust by some of the previous mayor and city manager, a depleted city staff, questionable salary proposals, and how it may finally move on tackling its upcoming financial challenges related to the pending departure of the IRS processing center and its jobs, and the increase in state-mandated pension contributions.

The commission voted 4 to 0 to advance a copy of attorney Scott White's report that accuses former mayor Sherry Carran and ex-city manager Larry Klein of criminal wrongdoing related to use of public resources for private campaigns, and destruction of public property in the form of deleted emails. White, a Lexington-based attorney, was hired in the summer by the city commission to investigate possible wrongdoing in the city's code enforcement department.

Nothing illegal was uncovered, but management of the department was highly criticized and longtime city engineer Mike Yeager ultimately resigned.

During that investigation, White's scope was widened to evaluate an issue that was thought to have been put to rest by the Kentucky Attorney General's Office earlier in the year: that Klein illegally aided Carran's campaign through the use of his public job.

White retrieved more emails than were originally sent to Attorney General Andy Beshear for his consideration after the Covington firefighters union filed a complaint. The union supported Joe Meyer, who ultimately unseated Carran last November. Beshear's office found no wrongdoing.

White accused the attorney general of not conducting a full investigation, but while presenting his findings, White's tone and language within the report were criticized as being more prosecutorial than investigatory. Those same criticisms re-emerged on Thursday as the commission voted to send that report to Kenton County Attorney Stacy Tapke and Kenton County Commonwealth's Attorney Rob Sanders who will look into possible criminal charges. 

Commissioner Jordan Huizenga said that he discussed the report with other attorneys that are "experienced and respected" and they were critical of the voice and language, he said. He questioned the wording of the transmittal letter from the city commission that would accompany the report as it is sent to Tapke and Sanders. "I don't want it to reflect poorly on the city to say this is a report we fully endorse," he said. "That's why I think the transmittal letter is critical because there are other folks who have looked at the report that have great experience and much of the same type of experience that Scott White does and there are legal arguments here that are somewhat sketchy at best, and the way it is written is clearly opinionated and not investigatory.

"How do we communicate that in a transmittal letter?"

Mayor Joe Meyer would not allow The River City News to see the letter, neither would he say who wrote it. (Commissioner Tim Downing allowed RCN to see the letter, but a copy was not provided because it is in draft form, he said.) Meyer said the letter could be requested through open records.
 
Commissioner Michelle Williams would not say if she knew who wrote it, and Huizenga said that he did not know as he had just received it at the meeting.
 
City Manager David Johnston said that there were multiple authors, including city solicitor Frank Warnock.
 
Warnock said his office did not write the letter. Later, on Friday, Warnock clarified that assistant city solicitor Michael Barlett had provided edits to the letter.
 
Commissioner Bill Wells did not join the other members of the commission in voting to send the report on, opting instead for a "present, not voting." Huizenga, Downing, Meyer, and Williams voted yes.
 
Wells rattled off a litany of concerns about the report by White. He criticized the attorney for being critical of the attorney general's investigation, part of which was based on a lack of direct interviews, and noted that White did not interview key players such as Klein, Carran, and former operations director Lisa Desmarais in his own report. Wells wanted to know how White arrived at his conclusion that Klein illegally donated $2,000 to Carran's campaign that was then not claimed in campaign finance reports. He also suggested that the report lacked context about the difficulty in communication between Klein and the firefighters union.
 
"I'm just trying to get clarity on the report," Wells said. "I believe there is still quite a bit of gray area within the report, a lot of accusations and I'm not sure there's as much evidence as I would like to see."
 
"You've had lots of opportunities to call Mr. White," Meyer said.
 
"I like to do everything in public," Wells said.
 
Meyer laughed.
 
"Excuse me. I think having this hanging over our heads impedes our progress on the other important issues facing our city," Meyer said, noting the City Hall reorganization plan, restaffing the city building, and addressing procedural and policy issues. "Quite frankly, this needs to be put to rest and put behind us."
 
"I would agree with that," Wells said.
 
"I'm not interested in dragging it out for weeks and months," Meyer said.
 
Williams said she was willing to move forward with White's recommendation that his report be formally forwarded on to Tapke and Sanders for review.
 
"If we go ahead and go forward, we'll get some closure on this," she said. "If there's nothing to it, let the next higher up decide that."
 
The commission also voted to create a committee that would review White's recommendations related to the city's ethics code. Meyer appointed himself, Huizenga, and Downing to the committee.

The commission also listened to a report from assistant city solcitior Michael Bartlett about the city's email preservation policy. Klein and Carran are accused of deleting emails before they departed City Hall, but both deny that claim. Bartlett said that the current system, as managed by Covington-based C-Forward, allows individual employees to delete their emails from the server. This is an issue that has been discussed in recent years but never fully addressed for reasons that were unclear Thursday night. Such emails should be preserved for two years and the city had previously been instructed to do so by the attorney general.

"We're getting a wake up call," City Manager Johnston said. "Our goal is public trust. We need to comply with state law, step one. I think what (Bartlett) has said is, primarily, in the spirit we have been doing it, but we can't have hard evidence and hard policy and training that we take this seriously. I think that's what spurred this discussion.

Huizenga asked who is currently in charge of the information technology at City Hall.

"It's a function under operations director which has been in a state of flux," Johnston said.
 
The city commission also voted to create a job description for a new communication manager, which will be a different position than the public information officer role vacated by Monica Beavers earlier this year. The previous job paid around $50,000, but the new one will pay between $73,000 and $110,000.
 
"This person is going to be working with department heads and with the commission on effective communication within the organization and how to strategically get out messages to the public and that takes more than just writing press releases," Johnston said.
 

Wells asked where the money would come from for such a high-paying gig.

"It will be coming from the general fund," Johnston said. He said the city is sitting on a nice checkbook balance because it hasn't had as many employees to pay.

Written by Michael Monks, editor & publisher
Photo: Covington city commission meets Thursday night in special session (RCN)