Prospects fading for bill that would aid Louisville ethics inves - WDRB 41 Louisville News

Prospects fading for bill that would aid Louisville ethics probes

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – A bill in the Kentucky General Assembly that would give Louisville ethics investigators the power to subpoena witnesses isn't likely to be heard in a House committee this session, the panel's chairman said Wednesday.

Senate Bill 53 -- a measure backed by the Louisville Metro Council -- cleared the Senate unanimously but has languished in the House Local Government Committee since early February.

"It doesn't have the support of leadership or our committee," said Rep. Steve Riggs, the panel's chairman and a Louisville Democrat.

A similar bill passed the Senate last year and also cleared Riggs' committee but wasn't called for a vote on the House floor.

In the wake of two ethics cases involving Metro Council members, the council urged state lawmakers last December to pass legislation allowing the Louisville/Jefferson County Metro Ethics Commission to compel key people to testify and produce documents.

Despite the bill's easy passage in the state Senate, Riggs said House leaders have concerns about expanding subpoena power to unelected ethics officials -- an unprecedented step in Kentucky. Riggs also noted that the Commonwealth's Attorney's and Jefferson County Attorney's offices in Louisville already have the ability to issue subpoenas.

"So many groups that should be investigating already have subpoena power," he said.

Senate Bill 53 is co-sponsored by Louisville Sens. Julie Denton, a Republican, and Denise Harper Angel, a Democrat, and would apply to ethics boards in Louisville and Lexington.

Denton said she chose to sponsor the legislation because she believes that "integrity in government is essential."

Harper Angel did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.

Metro Council member David Yates, D-25th District, was the lead sponsor of the city resolution that passed unanimously last December urging the change in state law.

"There was a demand for it," he said. "People wanted to make sure there was accountability."

The commission's lack of subpoena power has been evident in hearings involving the late Metro Council member Judy Green in 2011 and current Council member Barbara Shanklin in 2012.  

"While the Commission was able to discover facts freely from public documents and Metro officials, many questions raised in the (Shanklin) hearing could not be answered because the Commission could not compel witnesses to appear and testify," according to the ethics commission's annual report.

Chris Poynter, a spokesman for Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer, declined to say whether Fischer backs the measure in Frankfort or supports giving the ethics commission -- a body he appoints -- subpoena power. Poynter would not comment beyond saying, "We are always for more transparency."

Speaking at a Tuesday meeting of the Metro Council's government accountability and ethics committee, ethics commission attorney Deborah Kent said the bill isn't likely to pass.

"I have been told by some people in Frankfort that it's dead, that it will not be coming out of committee," she said.

Jerry Miller, vice chairman of the government accountability committee, said of the bill: "It's certainly not looking good right now."

"While we did have a champion in the Senate pushing it, we don't have a champion in the House pushing it, which is sad, but we don't," said Miller, a Republican who is running for a seat in the Kentucky House. "And I hope we can correct that next year."

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