Louisville Metro Councilwoman Julie Denton has been paid over $100,000 to lobby for organizations in Frankfort since the beginning of last year, according to the database of the Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission.
While there are no rules against city council members doubling as Kentucky General Assembly lobbyists, there are questions about whether Denton has followed the letter or spirit of Metro Council and Metro Ethics Commission rules when it comes to properly disclosing potential conflicts of interest that would arise from her employers paying her to lobby the state legislature.
For example, Denton sponsored and voted for an ordinance last year to direct over $12,000 of taxpayer dollars to one of her lobbying clients just before landing a lucrative contract with that organization, and — according to board minutes — just after agreeing to the terms of that contract.
However, Denton maintains to Insider Louisville that she has abided by all of the city’s ethics rules, abstaining when matters involving her clients come up for a vote in Metro Council.
Of particular note is Denton’s lobbying work for the Jefferson County Suburban Fire Service — made up of the 17 fire protection districts outside the Louisville Fire Department — whose interests sometimes come up in matters voted on by Metro Council.
Denton’s $2,000 per month contract to lobby for the fire districts began in May of 2017 and continued through this March, during which time she has abstained from votes approving the appointments of individuals to six different fire protection districts’ board of directors — the same boards responsible for approving Denton’s hiring and payments for lobbying services.
However, despite council rules indicating that members must explain the reason for the abstention and the conflict of interest, a review of video from these council meetings shows that she never explained the nature of her potential conflict when abstaining from these appointment votes, and three times simply abstained without mentioning anything about a conflict.
Additionally, Metro Council members are required by the city’s ethics ordinances to submit financial disclosure statements to the Metro Ethics Commission each year, listing any private or financial interest in any organization or agency doing business with the city that may create a conflict of interest.
The statute adds that any member with such an interest that has a matter before the council must disclose that interest and disqualify herself or himself from participating in any way in that matter, including votes, debates and communications with other members.
Despite receiving $18,000 from the suburban fire districts in the previous nine months, on Jan. 31 Denton signed her 2018 financial disclosure statement without any mention of that employment or compensation, simply listing her occupation as “self-employed consultant.”
There are also questions surrounding Denton’s involvement in an ordinance she was the primary sponsor for last year, which directed a $12,722 Neighborhood Development Fund (NDF) grant to the Eastwood Fire Protection District to purchase an all-terrain vehicle for emergencies.
Though this appropriation was approved by Metro Council in its April 27 meeting and Denton says her contract to lobby for the suburban fire districts was not agreed to and signed until four days later on May 1, records from a board meeting of one of these fire districts indicate that the terms of councilwoman’s hiring had already been agreed to by at least April 17 — before her aide pitched the NDF grant sponsored by Denton to a council committee and it was approved by the full council.
In a series of emailed statements responding to Insider’s questions on these matters, Denton defended both the manner in which she has abstained from votes involving the fire protection districts and her financial disclosure forms submitted to the Ethics Commission, in addition to the timing and transparency of her participation in the NDF grant to the Eastwood Fire Protection District.
Asked if she had already begun negotiating the terms of her contract with the Jefferson County Suburban Fire Service before the Eastwood NDF votes and if that should have been disclosed to the public, Denton replied that this contract “was agreed to and later signed when it was sent on May 1st. There were no prior drafts or negotiations.”
The Denton Group
Under state law, a member of the Kentucky General Assembly must wait two years after they leave that body before becoming a registered agent employed to lobby the state legislature.
Denton served as the District 36 state senator for 20 years — chairing that chamber’s Health and Welfare Committee — until the Louisville Republican announced that she would instead to run for Metro Council in 2014. Denton ran unopposed in that District 19 council race, switching seats at the beginning of 2015.
According to Kentucky Legislative Ethics Commission records, Denton registered as a legislative agent in January of 2017, the earliest date possible under the state law creating the two-year “cooling-off” period for former state legislators.
But even in 2016, Denton had formed her own government relations and lobbying business — The Denton Group — and began work as a registered agent lobbying the executive branch, which is not prohibited for former legislators.
Denton began lobbying the executive branch for Kentucky Youth Advocates and Masonic Homes of Kentucky in 2016, and still does so as of this week. She briefly served as an executive agent for five other clients in 2016 — including two suburban fire departments — and has also lobbied that branch since 2017 for Hosparus Health, Child Care Council of Kentucky, United HealthCare Services and Norse Tactical.
Under state law, the employers of registered executive branch lobbyists are not required to report their compensation to the executive branch Ethics Commission, so Denton’s compensation from these employers is unavailable to the public.
However, the law governing the Legislative Ethics Commission has more stringent reporting requirements, with that agency’s records showing that Denton has received $108,625 in compensation from January of 2017 though March of this year from her services as a registered legislative lobbyist for 10 organizations.
Denton began lobbying the legislature during the 2017 session of the General Assembly for a few clients like Masonic Homes and Kentucky Youth Advocates, picking up the pro-charter schools group Center for Education Reform in March when the legislature passed a landmark bill to allow such schools in Kentucky for the first time.
In May of 2017, the Jefferson County Suburban Fire Service began employing Denton as a legislative agent and still does to this day, paying her $16,000 through the end of that year and $6,000 in the first three months of 2018. Denton picked up her highest paying client to lobby the legislature at $4,000 a month last November: United Healthcare Services, a large health insurer in Kentucky.
Not counting whatever compensation she may have received from executive branch lobbying, the Legislative Ethics Commission lists her 2017 compensation as a legislative agent at $65,125, and for the first three months of 2018 at $43,500 — the latter approaching the $47,330 she received as her salary for being a Metro Council member last year.
First asked by Insider to explain her abstentions from Metro Council votes in February to confirm the appointments of board members to four different suburban fire districts, Republican caucus director Steve Haag replied that she abstains “because at times she has had a business relationship with fire districts and doesn’t want there to be any hint of a conflict of interest.”
Asked to describe the business relationship, Denton said in an emailed statement that she began “doing contract work for them in Frankfort to raise the tax cap on Fire Departments because it was initially set back in the 1940s when fire departments were mostly volunteer. Most departments are now career paid and they can’t continue to provide excellent services to our community without additional resources.”
However, despite Metro Council rules requiring members to explain their reason for a vote abstention and the conflict in question, Denton did not do so in each of these four cases, nor in the two fire district board appointments she also abstained from in October and November of the previous year.
During the two board votes in late 2017, Denton simply stated that she was abstaining from the votes, making no reference to a conflict. At the Feb. 8 council meeting where four fire district board members were approved, she only stated on the first one that “I’d like to abstain my vote on this.”
For the next two appointees, Denton explained that her abstention was “in order to avoid any potential perception of conflict of interest” — without mentioning her employment as the potential conflict — and for the last one she said “ditto.”
Asked why she did not fully explain her abstentions and the interest in question, Haag stated that Denton “is not an employee of the fire districts and the fire districts gain no financial benefit from the votes in which she abstains, she simply does it to go the extra mile to ensure that there aren’t any concerns.”
While most suburban fire districts do not provide their board minutes on their website, a few of them do so and show that these boards with appointees approved by Metro Council are the ones who approved the contract and payments for Denton to lobby the General Assembly on their behalf in Frankfort.
Additionally, the financial disclosure form signed by Denton on Jan. 31 this year to the Metro Ethics Commission did not list any payments from or employment by the fire districts. She listed her occupation as “self-employed consultant” and wrote a zero with a line through in the section where she was asked to name any organizations she has an interest that do business with Metro Government.
Haag told Insider that Denton “does list her consulting business in the file,” adding that “she does not list every client, just as she also doesn’t list the names of every person for whom she assists with the purchase or sale of a home.”
Denton’s 2017 financial disclosure statement was nearly identical and was not amended throughout the rest of the year, listing her occupation as “realtor, consultant gov’t affairs.”
In both disclosure forms, Denton listed the occupation of her spouse as the senior vice president of Masonic Homes of Kentucky. She also fully explained her abstention from a Metro Council vote in September of 2016 on a Masonic Homes project, stating that this was due to her husband being employed by the organization.
Insider also submitted an open records request for the 2017 and 2018 financial disclosure forms submitted by Democratic council members Marianne Butler and Pat Mulvihill, who have abstained in recent years from votes involving LG&E and the utility company’s franchise agreement with the city. Butler’s forms state that she is an LG&E employee and Mulvihill’s states that his wife is also an LG&E employee, and video from several council meetings show the two members explaining their abstentions because of these potential conflicts.
The Eastwood ATV
On March 17 in 2017, the Eastwood Fire Protection District submitted an application to Metro Council for a $12,722 NDF grant to help buy an all-terrain vehicle, which would be used for emergency responses in The Parklands and other nearby rural areas during incidents when their normal vehicles could not access certain areas.
Each Metro Council member can dole out $75,000 in NDF grants each year to various projects and organizations in their district or throughout the community, but each grant must be approved by a council vote.
The ATV funding requested by the Eastwood fire department was similar to the NDF grant that was approved by Metro Council a few weeks earlier for the Jeffersontown Fire Protection District. While such expenditures for fire districts had previously been prohibited by the Jefferson County Attorney, that office vetted this NDF request for months and determined that assisting in the purchase of an emergency vehicle for public safety was allowable.
On April 13 — less than three weeks before her contract with the suburban fire districts began — Denton signed on as the primary sponsor of an ordinance to approve Eastwood’s NDF request, which would give out $6,361 each from her district’s NDF pot and that of District 20 Councilman Stuart Benson. The last third of the $19,083 ATV would be paid by the fire department.
On this same NDF approval form under a section marked “Primary Sponsor Disclosure,” Denton left the area blank that asked the sponsor to “list any personal or business relationship you, your family or your legislative assistant have with this organization, its volunteers, its employees or members of its board of directors.”
Just four days later on April 17 — according to the board minutes listed on its website — the board of trustees of the Pleasure Ridge Park Fire Protection District discussed how the suburban fire district chiefs had agreed to hire Denton as a legislative lobbyist for the districts and pay her $2,000 in each of the next six months.
The minutes show that Denton would lobby on the districts behalf in the lead up to a special session of the General Assembly that fall, which Gov. Matt Bevin had been expected to call in order to take up both pension reform and tax reform — but eventually did not. The minutes also state that “the majority of the fire districts have agreed to share the cost” of hiring Denton.
After PRP Chief Vincent Smith requested approval for the district to pay “up to” $2,000 to Denton, the board members voted to approve a motion to do so, according to the board minutes.
Two days later, on April 19, the council’s appropriations committee took up and voted to approve Denton’s NDF request for the Eastwood ATV, with her legislative aide explaining to the committee members what the fire department was requesting.
The next week, at the April 27 council meeting, the full council voted to approve Eastwood’s NDF without any discussion on their consent council, with Denton voting yes.
Asked if Denton had already begun negotiating a contract with the suburban fire districts while she had sponsored and voted on the NDF ordinance without properly disclosing this to the public, Haag replied in an email that she had not.
“The contract that was signed was the same one that she uses for all clients and was agreed to and later signed when it was sent on May 1st,” wrote Haag. “There were no prior drafts or negotiations regarding the matter.”
The May 8 board minutes of the Lyndon Fire Protection District show that they voted to allocate up to $1,000 for an unnamed “special legislative liaison,” but their August board minutes include a legislative update on pensions and tax reform from the “Denton Group.”
The May 15 minutes of the PRP board indicate that their district’s share of the costs to employ Denton as a lobbyist would be $705. As there are 17 suburban fire districts and a total of her initial six-month contract would amount to $12,000, that would suggest that all 17 districts pitched in and split the costs evenly to hire Denton.
The October minutes for PRP indicated that the board voted to extend Denton’s contract through the end of the year along with other districts, with her monthly salary remaining $2,000.
According to the city’s ethics ordinance, council members must list on their disclosure forms any business organization doing business with the city in which that member has “received compensation in excess of $5,000 during the preceding calendar year.” And “material change” in the information on the form must be “reported in writing to the Ethics Commission within ten business days” after the members knows of that circumstance.
There are also several sections of the ethics ordinance dealing with standards of conduct that may come into play in this matter, including one provision stating that “no Metro Officer shall use or attempt to use his or her official position to secure unwarranted privileges or advantages, for himself or herself.” Another states that no officer shall act in his or her official capacity in any matter where the officer has “a financial or private interest that might reasonably be expected to impair his or her objectivity or independence of judgment.”
Dana Nickles, the attorney for the Metro Ethics Commission, told Insider that she and the commission are prevented under city laws from entertaining “requests for advisory opinions from a person about the conduct of another person,” and therefore could not provide any opinions about Denton’s circumstances detailed in this article.
In January of this year, Denton announced that she would not run for a second term on Metro Council, tweeting that after serving in the public sector for 24 years, “I’m turning my attention to my personal life” and helping the Republican candidates running against Mayor Greg Fischer and Congressman John Yarmuth.
Denton was a panelist at an Insider Louisville event last week recapping the just-ended session of the General Assembly. Asked what type of legislation the General Assembly should take up in the next session, Denton answered that they should legalize medical marijuana, saying it would be both a source of needed tax revenue and a humane form of care for the sick that provided far less risk of overdose and addiction to prescription opioids.
Denton did not mention that Legalize Kentucky Now, Inc. — which advocates for the legalization of medical marijuana — is one of her clients that she is currently a registered legislative lobbyist for.