Ethics panel looks at port authority’s Millwood lease
By Ed Runyan
The Ohio Ethics Commission is investigating a land lease that the Western Reserve Port Authority approved in 2009.
The investigation, based on a complaint received by the commission, apparently is focused on the role of local real-estate executive Scott Lewis, vice president of Edward J. Lewis Inc. and also a member of port authority, which runs the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport and works on Mahoning Valley economic development.
The Vindicator obtained a copy of the letter the ethics commission wrote this month to the port authority.
“The Ohio Ethics Commission is currently conducting an investiga- tion of complaints received alleging that a member or members of the Western Reserve Port Authority may have violated Ohio Ethics Law,” the letter says.
“In furtherance of this investigation,” the ethics commission asked the port authority to provide the agency with copies of emails, correspondence, notes, recordings and other information pertaining to the lease approved by the port authority that enabled Millwood Inc. to purchase the former Davis Cargo Building on the west side of the airport, along Ridge Road. Millwood is a product-packaging and shipping company.
The letter is signed by Julie M. Corte, the commission’s chief investigative attorney.
The letter did not give the port authority a deadline for providing the information, but Dan Keating, the port authority’s legal counsel, says the items most likely will be provided by month’s end.
Don Hanni III, also a port-authority member, said he made the complaint that led to the investigation, though he believes another board member also talked to the commission. Hanni said he wrote the complaint early this year.
Corte, reached by telephone, said she could neither confirm nor deny that an investigation has begun, nor answer questions about complaints the commission receives.
Attempts to contact Lewis at his office in Warren were not successful.
Hanni said his complaint refers only to Lewis, so he doesn’t know whether the conduct of anyone else is being scrutinized.
The lease in question is for land Millwood needed in order to purchase a building from the estate of deceased local construction company owner and philanthropist D.D. Davis.
Lewis was the listing agent for the cargo building, which Millwood uses for product development, as well as another nearby building on Ridge Road that Millwood now uses for its headquarters.
Lewis said his company earned a fee for selling both buildings, which are valued at about $2.2 million.
Hanni raised questions last year, in Vindicator stories, about the roles Lewis played as a board member and listing agent during lease negotiations.
In one closed-door session at a port authority meeting in February 2009 called by Lewis to discuss the lease, John Masternick — then-chairman of the port authority — turned the meeting over to Lewis. Lewis could be heard on a recording introducing the Millwood partners to the other board members.
When the closed-door meeting had concluded, the board gave Keating and the airport’s aviation director at the time, Steve Bowser, authority to complete negotiations on the lease.
Masternick could be heard also saying: “And just for the record, we seem to have ironed out all the details.”
Hanni has said he believes Lewis’ involvement in the executive session, as well as his participation in other matters related to the lease, violated Ohio law that prevents a public official from using his position to gain a benefit for himself.
Keating has said in the past that he believes it was OK for Lewis to participate in discussions regarding the lease since all of the other board members knew that Lewis was the listing agent for the cargo building.
Hanni, who was new to the board at the time the negotiations were being finalized, said he was not aware that Lewis was the listing agent until after the closed-door meeting about the lease.
Lewis previously said he relied on Keating’s advice regarding what he was allowed to do and abstained from voting on any issues relating to the lease.
Paul Heltzel, a member of the Trumbull County Board of commissioners, which appointed Lewis to the port authority, said Lewis could “just as easily be exonerated” by the investigation as found to be in violation.
Scott Lynn, port authority chairman, said he doesn’t feel it would be appropriate to comment “until the ethics commission has a chance to complete their review.”
Keating issued an opinion letter, at Lynn’s request, Jan. 27, 2011, in which Keating stated the reasons why he felt Lewis’ actions did not violate ethics law.
“In February 2009, Mr. Lewis introduced representatives of Millwood to the Board of Directors at a regularly scheduled meeting of the Board of the WRPA,” Keating said in the letter.
“A discussion occurred in Executive Session ... with representatives of Millwood, who outlined their plan for the building, including what jobs would be retained in the local area if they were able to secure ownership of the building, and a lease with the Port Authority,” he continued.
“Mr. Lewis disclosed his status as a Realtor on behalf of the Lumsden family, owners of the building, and did not participate in any deliberations regarding the merits of any transaction regarding the building at that time.”
Keating noted that Lewis “forwarded some information from Millwood to my attention, as negotiations proceeded, but he did not actively negotiate on behalf of Millwood.”
The lease also has been scrutinized by the Federal Aviation Administration, which said the port authority’s failure to allow the FAA to review the lease before approving it placed the airport in danger of losing future FAA funding.
The airport qualifies for $1 million annually in airport improvements funding. Hotel-motel taxes from Mahoning and Trumbull counties contribute an additional $700,000 annually to airport operations.
The port authority has proposed to the FAA that the port authority buy the cargo building from Millwood so that the lease can be canceled. The port authority also plans to market the building to try to find another occupant who will be able to use the building in a manner more acceptable to the FAA.