Mayor Greg Ballard's choice to lead the Capital Improvement Board heads a law firm that has lobbied for the Indiana Pacers, one of the agency's biggest tenants.
The CIB owns Conseco Fieldhouse, home of the Pacers.
To avoid a conflict of interest in his new role, Barnes & Thornburg managing partner Robert T. Grand has set up an "ethical screen" that includes removing himself from any discussions about the Pacers.
He also has promised to bar the firm -- one of the city's biggest, representing various clients with interests in city business -- from working for anyone involved in matters harmful to the CIB and said he would forgo any potential compensation from his firm's involvement with the Pacers.
A political watchdog questioned whether those steps would be enough to outweigh the perception of a conflict, while an ethics expert questioned whether it would limit Grand's effectiveness on the board.
As I pointed out in my report, the appointment of Grand to the CIB directly clashes with a key element of Ballard's campaign pledge to enact ethics reform if he was elected mayor. That campaign pledge promised to prohibit registered lobbyists or people with a financial interest from serving on any board or commission that directly affects or deals with their lobbying or financial interests. With an "ethics schmethics" style reply, Ballard said of the Grand ethics problem, "Bob said he wouldn't do it if it embarrassed us," Ballard said. "But we want top talent." O'Shaughnessy added, "Ballard also said Grand 'has a reputation for being a clean and ethical guy.'" I would add an editorial comment here that Ballard didn't even know who the hell Grand was until a few months ago when he showed offering to raise a few bucks for his strugging campaign. Grand's response was equally as repulsive as Ballard's. "Why would I turn away this opportunity to serve this mayor and my city because I happen to be registered as a lobbyist?" he asked.
To cover up the error in this horrific decision, Ballard and Grand have created what they call an "ethical screen" to give the appearance they are trying to deal with the problem. Because the Indiana Pacers are one of the biggest agenda items coming before the CIB, essentially Grand, as its leaders, will supposedly step back from participating in any decisions involving the Pacers. Under this plan, which I assure will have attorneys all over town laughing as they stand around the water coolers Monday morning discussing it, Grand will do the following to avoid conflicts of interest:
- Notify the CIB any time a client of the firm is involved in "matters with or become adverse to the CIB."
- Abstain from taking part in deliberations or votes on such matters.
- Establish an "ethical screen" that precludes Grand's involvement in matters in which the firm represents the Pacers.
- Bar Grand's access to the firm's files on the Pacers.
- Bar access by firm attorneys to any materials Grand receives in his role as a member of the CIB.
- Deduct from Grand's compensation any share of firm income derived from representing the Pacers.
"I have not ever been involved with anything with respect to the Pacers," Grand said to O'Shaughnessy. "To the degree that there is any involvement of the firm with the Pacers, I won't be involved," he added. In the business world, this would be the equivalent of telling the CEO of General Motors he couldn't participate in any decisions involving the company's entire Chevrolet division. "The CIB and the firm have to weigh if the breadth of (ethical) screens is so great that the person would be limited in what they can do," former state ethics commissioner David Hadley said. Nobody with a straight face can say this ethics screen will work. For God's sakes, Bob Grand is the managing partner of Barnes & Thornburg. The ethics problem has already surfaced. Everyone knows, Mayor Ballard, that Grand made sure you were fully briefed on the financial problems facing the Pacers franchise because of lousy attendance, and that Grand or his law firm arranged for your meeting with the Simons at Conseco Fieldhouse on Thursday. It's no secret the Simons think they got a raw deal compared to Irsay and think their lease deal with the City should be renegotiated. As O'Shaughnessy reported:
The thorniest issue Grand might face is the possibility that the Pacers could seek to renegotiate the team's 20-year lease at the 10-year mark, in 2009.
Ballard met with the Simons at Conseco on Thursday. Both sides said the point of the meeting was to get acquainted. Ballard said there was no discussion of a new lease.
Speculation that the Pacers will ask for a new lease has been fueled by reports about the team's financial problems.
What is incredulous about this move by Ballard is the degree to which he has been willing to abandon the higher moral ground that he had coming into office with "no strings attached" as he told the media in order to advance the self-promoting Grand's status as a leading state and city "power broker." Grand's claim that "lobbying" is a small part of what he does is simply not believable to anyone who knows this man. As to ethics, let's examine this part of O'Shaughnessy's story. "[Grand] said his experience in public finance as an adviser to then-Mayor Stephen Goldsmith in building Conseco Fieldhouse and Victory Field qualified him to serve in the position." So he advised Goldsmith on behalf of city taxpayers on the public financing of Conseco Fieldhouse and then he and his firm turned around and became a lobbyist for Simon interests, including the Indiana Pacers. The only thing you can say about the Conseco Fieldhouse lease with the Simons is that it screwed taxpayers a little less than the Lucas Oil Stadium lease with Irsay.
Because Ballard has set out with such reckless abandon to pursue this "business as usual" governance of our city, we must now turn to the City-County Council for help. This appointment of Bob Grand must be rejected by the council. "Council Democrats said they were nonetheless concerned," O'Shaughnessy writes. "After taking considerable heat last year for a series of ethics-related questions about then-council President Monroe Gray's business deals, some said Ballard should be more careful with his appointments." "I go back to perception," said Joanne Sanders, the Democratic minority leader. "I do have some concerns about the appearance of a conflict."
As for Ballard, he tells O'Shaughnessy he plans to submit his own ethics reform package later this month, but if it allows for these kinds of appointments, then it isn't worth the paper on which it's written. This is what really insults the good people of this city. Ballard's Corporation Counsel, taking a page out of his predecessor's lack of respect for ethical considerations, said to O'Shaughnessy that "anyone qualified for a position such as one on the CIB is bound to have extensive business connections that create potentials for conflict." You see, in the world in which these people operate the only people "qualified for a position" come from within a small, elitist group who look down upon all of the rest of us. Strangely, until a few months ago, Ballard was one of those people they looked down upon. Now, Greg Ballard has become one of those people looking down at us in the same way.
UPDATE: There is a key piece of information missing from O'Shaughnessy's report in today's Star which raises even more concern about this so-called "ethical screen." O'Shaughnessy writes, "Ballard said Grand was the one who raised the question of potential conflicts and offered to draft the letter to avoid them." "He said the city's top attorney, Chris Cotterill, reviewed the letter and approved the appointment," he added. Cotterill is a former employee of Grand's law firm! That's right. Cotterill worked as an associate at the same law firm where Grand serves as managing partner. He practiced at the firm for a short period after graduating from law school before Grand helped him land a job in the administration of Gov. Daniels.