Last week, we wet our readership’s appetite for Thanksgiving puns with yet another pay-to-play development from our reliable friends in the State of California. This week, with the holiday itself just a handful of hours away, we thought we would update you on a late addition to the menu from a new enforcer in the pay to play space – the City of Cincinnati, Ohio. We hope you like your turkey and mashed potatoes with a side of Skyline Chili.
The Cincinnati City Council stepped into the pay to play enforcement space for the first time just a few weeks ago by unanimously approving a new pay-to-play ordinance aimed at curbing the political influence of commercial real estate developers who have actual or prospective business with the city. This action follows in the wake of last year’s high profile criminal indictments against three separate City Council members accused of accepting cash and illegal campaign contributions from business interests in exchange for official government action.
The new ordinance – codified as Cincinnati Ordinance No. 415-2021 – prohibits the Mayor, City Council Members, their agents, campaign committees, and affiliated PACs from soliciting or accepting political contributions of any amount from “financially interested persons” with certain types of business matters before the city. For the purposes of this prohibition, the ordinance defines financially interested persons to include: individuals and business entities seeking development incentives (including loan and tax incentives) from the city valued at $100,000 or more; individuals and business entities involved in the sale of city property with an estimated fair market value of $200,000 or more; and individuals and business entities seeking zoning changes before the city.
Under the new pay-to-play regulatory framework, improper contributions received or solicited in inadvertent violation of the rules can be cured via refund or disgorgement within 30 days of receipt. Knowing violations or violations remaining un-cured after 30 days, however, place elected officials and their agents at risk of substantial civil monetary penalties.
In conjunction with its adoption of the new pay-to-play contribution ban, the City Council also passed an affiliated emergency ordinance, creating a new “Ethics and Good Government Counselor” role within the city responsible for leading local ethics reform and supporting the work of the newly-formed Cincinnati Ethics Commission (CEC). In this role, the EGG Counselor is specifically tasked with: educating public officials and employees on city ethics and conflict-of-interest rules; investigating potential violations of those rules; and assisting the CEC with its enforcement of the city’s campaign finance, ethics and pay-to-play ordinances.
As time passes, we will see how effective the EGG Counselor and CEC are in implementing and enforcing the new ethics and pay to play rules put in place by the city. One thing is clear, however, the City of Cincinnati has announced its entry into the pay-to-play regulation arena with full force.