A perceived conflict of interest has some Ingham County officials standing in defense of their colleague as his political opponents raise questions surrounding his ethics weeks before they face off in the August primary election.
County Commissioner Dennis Louney, who represents the east side of Lansing, raised a motion in the finance committee earlier this year to approve $2.25 million in bonds for the Ferley Consolidated Drain Maintenance and Improvement Project, according to minutes posted online. Louney works as a public affairs representative for The Spicer Group, the site engineers previously selected for the drain project and one of the largest beneficiaries of the proposed bond funding.
Commissioners contended the resolution was more formality than action plan. The flood relief project adjacent to Dell Road would have carried forward with or without the board’s consent, said Drain Commissioner Pat Lindemann. But Louney’s day job still caused his Democratic primary challengers, Thomas Morgan and Robert Pena, to speak their minds. (Morgan was a reporter and editor for City Pulse from 2004 to 2007.)
“A lot of people think politicians are out to enrich themselves and their donors instead of the interests of working families,” said Morgan, who first raised the issue.
“This situation just goes to show that people aren’t necessarily wrong to think that way.”
Added Pena: “That was probably not the best thing. How can you really make solid decisions when you’re working for the players? I cocked an eyebrow, but I don’t want to sling any mud here.”
Calls to officials at The Spicer Group for additional comment were not returned.
Louney is filling out the term of Brian Mc- Grain, who quit when Lansing Mayor Andy Schor appointed him director of economic development and planning. The commission selected Louney in February. He, Morgan and Pena are seeking the nomination for the four-year term that begins Jan. 1.
The finance committee ultimately approved Louney’s motion, sending the resolution to the full board for final approval later that month. Louney — after seeking advice from his colleagues on the board — decided to abstain from the second vote and maintained that he did nothing improper to warrant the recent criticism.
The rest of the board, in the meantime, unanimously approved the resolution.
“I voted in finance and when it came to the full board, I made sure to raise his employment with The Spicer Group, Louney said. “I didn’t want there to be a perception of conflicted interests.”
“I can get how it can be perceived that way but it wasn’t a direct financial contribution,” he added. “It’s not a direct payment to these companies.”
The drain project and The Spicer Group’s involvement stem from a 2015 petition submitted by landowners to alleviate widespread flooding of properties east and west of Pine Tree Road. The funds called for improvement of drain inlets and clearing of obstructions to the main drain channel upstream of its outlet.
The resolution in question granted “full faith and credit” in the multimillion-dollar drainage project, essentially vouching for bond repayment and green-lighting the mechanism that Louney’s company would eventually use to receive a paycheck. Commissioners largely stood behind Louney when his ethics were under attack.
“I didn’t see anything illegal about it and as long as he revealed his involvement, it shouldn’t be an issue,” said Vice Chairman Victor Celentino. “His employer does do a lot of business with the drain commissioner. That was taken into consideration, but as long as he reveals those conflicts and recuses himself, I don’t see an issue.”
State law requires commissioners abstain from voting on matters such as the award of a contract to a firm owned by the commissioner. The county’s ethics policy further encourages officials to sit on the sidelines when their own financial interests are entangled or likely to become entangled with the duties of their office.
Commissioner Mark Grebner, the author of the ethics policy, suggested Louney “probably” should’ve also abstained from voting on the matter in the finance committee but said there doesn’t appear to be a conflict. The policy is primarily designed to prevent nepotism, improper gifts and relationships, and purchasing conflicts.
“The idea is to look for actual corruption,” Grebner added. “This doesn’t appear to be an issue here.”
Lindemann said Louney doesn’t work directly with the project and receives no direct financial benefits. He said the county’s bond issue — and corresponding resolution — also doesn’t help The Spicer Group. The funding would have been obtained and funneled to them regardless. The measure just edged down interest rates, he said.
But Morgan and Pena still spoke out against what they suggested could be a serious conflict of interest. Their take is simple:
What’s good for the project is ultimately good for The Spicer Group. And what’s good for the Spicer Group is good for its employees, including Louney.