Port authority should learn from ethics panel’s findings

Public reprimand of Scott Lewis, a member of the Western Reserve Port Authority, for violating Ohio’s conflict of interest law seems too lenient — considering he earned a sizable commission on a real-estate deal involving the port authority.

Fortunately, the Ohio Ethics Commission’s issuance of a report based on its investigation may not be the final word on the matter.

Trumbull County commissioners are asking the prosecutor’s office for an opinion as to whether they have the authority to remove Lewis from the governing body of the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport. The commissioners have four representatives on the authority, including Lewis, a Warren real-estate executive.

His participation in closed-door discussions regarding the lease of the land at the airport was improper by any reading of state law. What made it even more egregious was the $97,366 commission he was paid for brokering the deal.

On April 17, Lewis signed an agreement with the Ohio Ethics Commission that says he had a conflict of interest because he “participated in board matters directly related to a real-estate transaction in which he represented Davis International Inc.”

Davis owned a building on Ridge Road on the edge of the regional airport in Vienna Township. The building was sold to Millwood Inc. in 2009. The port authority needed to enter into a lease agreement with Millwood because the building is located on airport land.

Lewis did not vote on the pact, but participated through “comments, discussions, email correspondence and attendance at meetings on several occasions on matters” related to the lease, the agreement he signed states.

The Ohio Ethics Commission launched an investigation after it received a complaint from port authority member Don L. Hanni III about his colleague, Lewis, financially benefiting from the lease deal.

Hanni had initially believed that Lewis was merely providing real-estate expertise.

In issuing the public reprimand, the ethics panel noted that two other board members, John Masternick and Scott Lynn, knew that Lewis was a broker for Davis International prior to the closed-door meeting on the land-lease deal.

Hence, the state panel concluded that such mitigating circumstances precluded prosecution or resignation.

Nonetheless, violation of the Influence Peddling statute of the Ohio Ethics Law justifies the decision by the county commissioners to seek an opinion from the prosecutor’s office.

We are well aware that individuals from the private sector who serve on public boards aren’t as familiar with the state laws governing their behavior as those on the public payroll. But, common sense should come into play.

Good judgment

As we said in an editorial in October 2010 shortly after The Vindicator revealed Lewis’ involvement in the lease deal, “Claiming — or feigning — ignorance is not a substitute for good judgment. That’s a lesson some members of the Western Reserve Port Authority would do well to learn.”

State ethics law prohibits a public official from having “an interest in the profits or benefits of a public contract entered into by or for the use of the political subdivision or governmental agency or instrumentality with which the public official is connected.”

We have no doubt that members of the Western Reserve Port Authority are sincere when they say they are committed to the highest ethical standards and are careful to avoid conflicts of interest.

However, the Lewis matter suggests that the authority may need a refresher course in state laws pertaining to the duties and responsibilities of its members.

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