Tuesday, March 20, 2001

Mayor faces ethical bind in house deal

Long-ago vote halts purchase

By Robert Anglen
The Cincinnati Enquirer

At left, the townhouse Mayor Charlie Luken wants to buy.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
        Buying a house in the West End could put Cincinnati Mayor Charlie Luken on the wrong side of the law.

        And his attempts to make it right haven't convinced city lawyers.

        Now he's waiting for the Ohio Ethics Commission. But by the time it makes a decision, the house Mr. Luken wants might already be sold.

        “It's a nutty result,” Mr. Luken told the Enquirer. “I've offered to cure the problem, but that might not be enough.”

        The problem is property taxes, or rather, a lack of them. It turns out the townhouse Mr. Luken offered to buy isn't subject to city property taxes.

        That's because 17 years ago — when Mr. Luken was serving his second City Council term — officials voted to waive property taxes in the area to encourage growth and development.

        Now Mr. Luken is being told by city lawyers that he is facing a potential conflict

        of interest that could violate state ethics laws.

        The three-story townhouse, listed at $129,900, is at 519 Elizabeth St., just off Central Avenue. The neat, well-kept brick row houses were built in 1992; Mr. Luken says the tax abatement will expire around 2007.

        “I've got to live by the rules, but I don't see any conflict here,” he said. “I have told them that I will even pay the property taxes, if that's what will fix it.”

        It won't, City Solicitor Fay Dupuis said.

        “The state ethics law is clear, precise and rigid,” she said. “Our reading of the law raises questions.”

        Ms. Dupuis agrees that the time frame should be considered. But laws prohibiting elected officials from self-dealing don't come with expiration dates. The concern: The mayor could have voted for the tax abatement then to give himself an advantage now.

        “That's ridiculous,” said Councilman Pat DeWine. “Here is the mayor, who wants to do something good for the city — move into a neighborhood — and he's being told he can't.”

        As a Republican, Mr. DeWine often disagrees with the mayor, who is a Democrat. But he said this extends to all council members.

        “The council does things all of the time that affect council members,” he said. “What about raising and lowering taxes? This is very silly to me.”

        Mr. Luken might also find it silly, if this were the first time. Before this, he considered buying in the West End's Citirama development. That's when city lawyers told him that he'd recently voted on issues regarding that area and advised him of a potential conflict.

        But the last time he voted on Elizabeth Street was in 1984. In a letter to the Ohio Ethics Commission he points out that the city would have no involvement in the purchase and that he doesn't even know the seller. Mr. Luken said he needed a response last week, before his hold on the property ran out, but a decision could take weeks.

        Sure, he could look in other neighborhoods, but Mr. Luken — who now rents an apartment downtown — said he doesn't want to live anywhere else.

        “I just love downtown. I like the idea of living in and around downtown. It's where I work, it's where I want to live,” he said. “I absolutely think it's a great neighborhood with a great mix of people.”

        Gene Beaupre, a political sci ence instructor at Xavier University, said he has mixed opinions: On one hand, he believes in a strict interpretation of ethics laws. On the other, he doubts this is a true conflict.

        Elected officials are given a lot of power when they take office, and this could turn out to be a sacrifice Mr. Luken will have to make in exchange for the public trust, Mr. Beaupre said.

        But Mr. Luken's Realtor, Jack Marck of Coldwell Banker, says if that happens, then the public will be the loser.

        “It's wonderful that Mr. Luken wants to live in downtown Cincinnati,” he said. “It is something that is a real plus for the city.”

        Mr. Luken said he is not trying to make a statement.

        “I'm no urban pioneer,” he said. “I just like the neighborhood.”


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