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Council Continues To Question 2015 MSD Subcontractor Payment

Credit Sarah Ramsey

Cincinnati council members are still asking questions about who in the city manager's office threatened a Columbus-based law firm if it didn't pay $55,000 to a former Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD) subcontractor last year.

The city sent a check overnight to Bricker & Eckler, who then paid Urban Strategies and Solution Group, which is owned by former city council member Sam Malone.

Council's Rules and Audit Committee held a special meeting Tuesday to discuss the issue.

City Manager Harry Black insists he did not threaten to drop the city's contract with the firm if the payment was not made. But he said wanted the issue resolved quickly.

At least two council members, including Chris Seelbach, aren't sure Black is being truthful.

"I am not willing to lay down and let the administration say we shouldn't investigate this any further because it will demoralize our workforce," Seelbach said. "Well, guess what will demoralize the entire public, if top city administrators are lying to them.  And so that is what we are trying to uncover, and I think there are still many questions left on whether that's a possibility."

Everyone agrees the contract between Bricker & Eckler and Malone was a bad idea. It ended in May, 2015. It's one example of contract procurement practices that have been changed since Black became city manager.

The Malone payment was revealed in an MSD audit released last month.

Malone has a close relationship with Council Member Charlie Winburn. Seelbach suggested the payment was made to change Winburn's support for a failed proposal for the Clifton Market in last year's budget.  Winburn had said he would vote for the funding, but later changed his mind. Five of nine council members voted in favor of funding Clifton Market, but the mayor vetoed the proposal.

Assistant City Manager John Juech said the items are not related.

"I can say unequivocally that there was no relationship of any kind between the Bricker & Eckler payment and the Clifton Market conversation," Juech said. "Those are two entirely separate conversations."

After a committee meeting Tuesday, Council Member Wendell Young said he still has the same concern.

"I'm extremely troubled that I believe this law firm was threatened. I believe that threat came from the administration," Young said. "I don't think we're getting the truth about it. I don't think we've yet done all we can to establish what has actually happened here."

The Ohio State Auditor is conducting a review of the MSD.  The city's audit report was provided to the Ohio Attorney General's office, the Hamilton County Prosecutor's office and the Ohio Ethics Commission. The FBI is reportedly investigating the agency too.

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