Ohio’s Ethics Commission is reviewing a complaint against the mayor of Athens filed by his political opponent

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — The Ohio Ethics Commission is looking into allegations that the mayor of Athens broke ethics laws during the city’s purchase of its racial equity training.

Athens resident Damon Krane filed a complaint with the commission in June 2022, alleging Mayor Steve Patterson violated three ethics laws when he advocated for Athens City Council to approve the purchase.

Those laws prohibit public officials from abusing their positions to benefit themselves or associates. WOUB’s review of the laws found two of the three most likely do not apply but the third might.

Krane, who is now running against Patterson for mayor of Athens, made the allegations public at a League of Women Voters forum on Oct. 3.

Patterson denies the allegations and argues the timing of Krane’s decision to go public with the complaint is politically motivated.

In August 2021 the City Council approved roughly $91,000 to buy the training package from the National League of Cities, a nonprofit organization made up of city, town and village leaders from across the country.

Patterson at the time sat as co-vice chair of the organization’s Racial Equity and Leadership (REAL) Council.

Krane says by recommending the training program while serving on the REAL Council, Patterson used his position as mayor to elevate his status with the NLC, allowing him to rub shoulders with influential people and further his political ambitions.

While Patterson did recommend the NLC training program to the City Council, which then approved the funding, he denies his actions violated any state laws.

“It’s more of a title than anything else,” he said of his role on the council. “We just kind of serve in a capacity to where we’re advisory. … I mean, it’s not really an official (role). We’re not the driving force behind REAL”

WOUB’s review of Krane’s complaint included looking at the laws and several advisory opinions issued by the Ethics Commission interpreting these laws. WOUB also conducted multiple interviews with commission staff.

It appears two of the three laws do not apply to Patterson. These two appear to apply only to a public official who is also serving as a trustee, officer or director of an outside organization such as the NLC.

Krane alleges that “as Co-Vice Chair of the NLC REAL Council, Patterson clearly was an officer of the organization when he used the authority and influence of his office as mayor to advocate that Athens City Council authorize him to purchase the NLC REAL Council training package.”

But Patterson was not a trustee, officer or director of the NLC at the time he encouraged the city to purchase the training program, according to NLC.

NLC officials told WOUB that serving in a leadership position on a council does not make someone a trustee, officer or director of the organization. NLC has a board of directors and Patterson was not on the board at the time of the purchase, although he was elected to the board three months later.

In a December 2022 letter to Krane, the Ethics Commission informed him that it “continues to evaluate” his allegations but cites only one of the three laws cited by Krane.

This law, Ohio Revised Code 102.03, states public officials cannot participate, formally or informally, in “deliberations, discussions, or voting on a matter” if the official has “assumed a particular responsibility in the organization with respect to the matter.”

The commission said it continues to evaluate whether by sitting as co-vice chair of the REAL Council, Patterson “assumed a particular responsibility” within the NLC regarding the racial equity training program purchased by the city.

Patterson said the REAL Council has no involvement with making, selling or providing the racial equity training. That is handled by NLC staff under the REAL Program, which is separate from the council.

Patterson said the REAL Council, which meets twice a year, is a way for city leaders to come together and discuss approaches to promote racial equity in their cities.

The NLC has several councils focused on different issues and describes them this way on its website:

“The councils provide a space for local leaders to network and exchange ideas around issues of importance to the varying types of communities.”

Mayor Steve Patterson and his opponent Damon Krane sitting at a table during the Athens County League of Women Voters mayoral candidate forum.
Damon Krane (left) and Mayor of Athens Steve Patterson (right) at the League of Women Voters’ candidate forum. [Jack Greene | WOUB]

How ethics investigation are conducted

Under state law, investigations by the Ohio Ethics Commission are confidential.

Susan Wilkin, education and communications administrator for the commission, said that during the evaluation and investigation process, no one, not even the complainant, is entitled to know where the investigation stands.

Wilkin said complaints made to the commission go through a lengthy process.

Once a complaint is called in, the commission sends an information packet to the complainant to gather further details.

Investigators then review the information to determine whether the allegations fall under state ethics laws. If so, investigators review the complaint with the commission, which decides whether to launch an investigation.

If an investigation is launched, the commission will at some point contact the public official in an attempt to hear their side of the story.

Because the process is confidential, it is unclear whether the commission has launched a formal investigation into Krane’s complaint against Patterson. Patterson said the commission has yet to contact him in the nearly two years since the complaint was filed.

“This is really fascinating to me, by the way,” he said, “that if this was an investigation that was levied back in (2021), and I have never received any contact from the Ohio Ethics Commission or anybody else for that matter.”

Krane said the last contact he had with the commission was in August. He said that in a phone call an investigator told him, “If we stop looking at Patterson, we’ll let you know.”

Once an investigation is complete, the commission determines how the case should be resolved. This could be closing the case because of insufficient evidence, reaching a settlement with the official, or sharing the results with a county prosecutor, who will then determine whether to bring charges.

Wilkin said a settlement could result in a public reprimand, ethics training, or the official vowing not to run for re-election.

If the case goes to a prosecutor and charges are filed, a violation of Ohio Revised Code 102.03 is a first-degree misdemeanor and could result in a maximum sentence of six months in jail and/or a $1,000 fine.

Wilkin said the commission issues a press release if it reaches a settlement with the public official, or 90 days after it shares its findings with a county prosecutor and no action is taken.

Editors note: The previous version of this article stated Krane filed a complaint to the Ohio Ethics Commission in November 2021. Krane contacted the Commission in 2021 and formally filed a complaint in June 2022.