Wednesday, September 19, 2001

Council tries to untangle its own Genesis probe

By Gregory Korte
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Who's lying to Cincinnati City Council?

        Is it Glenda Smith-Johnston, head of the Office of Municipal Investigations, who said she never removed investigator Kimberlee Gray from the probe into a scandal-plagued West End housing program?

        Or is it Ms. Gray and her colleague, Frank Sefton, who said she did?

        That's what the seven-month-old investigation into the Genesis Redevelopment Corp. and the West End Community Council has come down to.

        As a result, City Council will vote today on a motion to remove Ms. Smith-Johnston from the Genesis probe and put it back into the hands of Ms. Gray.

        The latest developments in the Genesis case have little to do with the initial investigation into who in the city approved payments to Genesis Redevelopment.

        Instead, most council members say, the issue has become the integrity of the investigation itself.

        “I've mostly been on the other side, in thinking that this investigation has gone on far too long,” said Councilman John Cranley. “But let me say this now: My concern is almost exclusively whether members of OMI lied to City Council.”

        Mr. Cranley, a Democrat, has joined a coalition of mostly Republican council members who have been critical of the investigation. Led by Phil Heimlich, that group has included Republicans Pat DeWine and Chris Monzel, Charterite Jim Tarbell, and occasionally Democratic Mayor Charlie Luken.

        The latest chapter in the Genesis saga began in February, when City Council first asked OMI to investigate.

        The city-funded agency received more than $700,000 in tax money but left the West End with little to show for it. Council members wanted to know who in the city approved payments to West End Community Council board members and their families.

        In May, Ms. Gray — then acting director of OMI — told City Council that City Manager John Shirey had interfered in the investigation by failing to issue a subpoena. Mr. Shirey denied the charge, and in June, he replaced Ms. Gray with Ms. Smith-Johnston, a former public defender.

        Ms. Gray was demoted to the role of investigator. She said Ms. Smith-Johnston took her off the Genesis case in a meeting June 25, the new boss's first day on the job.

        In testimony before the Law Committee last week, Ms. Smith-Johnston denied that she removed Ms. Gray from the Genesis case.

        Later, when council members asked Ms. Gray whether Ms. Smith Johnston was telling the truth, she said, “No.”

        What was a case of she said-she said has now become more complicated.

        The third investigator present at that June 25 meeting, Mr. Sefton, told City Council Monday that he, too, understood that Ms. Gray was to be taken off the Genesis case.

        Mr. Heimlich, a former prosecutor, recounted Ms. Smith-Johnston's testimony that she did not remove Ms. Gray and asked Mr. Sefton, “Is that a truthful statement?”

        “No sir, it is not,” he said.

        Ms. Smith-Johnston declined an invitation by City Council to respond to Mr. Sefton's statements.

        However, two mid-level administration officials later cast doubt on his testimony.

        After Ms. Gray and Ms. Smith-Johnston gave conflicting accounts last week, Mr. Shirey asked his deputy, Richard Mendes, to investigate.

        In a report to City Council, Mr. Mendes said, “It remains unclear why there is a difference of opinion at to what was intended in the meeting of June 25.”

        Personnel Director Rodney Prince, however, suggested that Ms. Gray and Mr. Sefton simply misunderstood Ms. Smith-Johnston.

        But to some council members, Mr. Shirey's involvement — particularly after City Council expressly took the investigation out of his hands in May — is troubling.

        Mr. Heimlich asked whether Mr. Shirey was really interested in getting to the truth of the matter, or was trying to “smooth over the differences” in the conflicting accounts.

        “This has gone far beyond Genesis,” Mr. Heimlich said. “Even as disgusted as we are about three-quarters of a million dollars being wasted, we've gone to a far more important issue, and that is the integrity of city government.”


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