Council Member Seth Walsh under investigation after fired aide files ethics complaint
The city of Cincinnati has paid a $30,000 settlement to a former aide of Council Member Seth Walsh, and the recently appointed council member is facing an investigation by the Office of Ethics and Good Government.
Tristina Allen filed an ethics complaint with the city shortly after Walsh forced her resignation May 3, according to documents released in response to a public records request. In a letter to human resources sent May 4, Allen says she believes Walsh fired her in retaliation for bringing up concerns about campaign work happening on city time.
Allen declined to comment for this story, citing the settlement agreement in which she agreed to not publicly discuss "any disputes between the parties, as well as the contents and terms of the agreement."
Walsh declined an interview and provided a written statement to WVXU: "I am aware of the settlement but was not involved in its negotiation," Walsh wrote. "I am singularly focused on continuing my efforts to help this city, especially those neighborhoods that have been left behind for so long."
Walsh took office in late December, replacing now-Congressman Greg Landsman. The term expires at the end of 2023 and Walsh is now campaigning ahead of the November election.
Campaign manager's alleged involvement
The investigation centers on Walsh's campaign manager, Brianna Ledsome, and her alleged involvement in council business despite not working for the city. (See details about the complaint below.) Walsh told WVXU Thursday night he has fired Ledsome from his campaign.
Ledsome declined an interview and did not provide a statement in time for publication.
Ledsome created 1919 Consulting three years ago and has worked on several Democratic campaigns at the city and county level. She worked for Council Member Meeka Owens as campaign manager and political consultant for the past three years. Owens says she terminated Ledsome Thursday night.
Owens declined to comment on how, if at all, Ledsome worked within her council office.
"I'm focused on the work I've been elected to do," Owens told WVXU. "I've made decisions to keep the work of my office moving forward."
Until a few weeks ago, Ledsome also worked on fundraising for Council Member Mark Jeffreys' campaign. Jeffreys tells WVXU he wasn't getting what he needed and chose to work with another fundraiser. Jeffreys declined to offer further comment.
Ledsome worked as finance director for Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney's first campaign in 2021 (Kearney was appointed to a vacant seat in 2020). And Ledsome was a finance consultant for Jeff Cramerding's first campaign in 2021. Ledsome is not affiliated with Kearney's or Cramerding's campaigns this cycle.
The ethics investigation
The Office of Ethics and Good Government is investigating Allen's allegations that she was often asked to do campaign-related work on city time, and that Ledsome was inappropriately involved in Walsh's council office.
Allen sent a letter to human resources May 4, asking for more information about her forced resignation and asking several questions about appropriate boundaries between the campaign and the council office. Later, she included the letter in her ethics complaint.
See the full letter below (story continues after):
Allen writes that she had written a document outlining her concerns with office management as a "personal guide" to bring up in the next staff meeting or one-on-one meeting. The document says some things needed to be discussed "before being able to move forward with a healthy work environment."
"In context this document would have been a constructive aid," Allen wrote in the HR letter. "It was instead discovered in my workspace, read, and shared without context and without my knowledge or consent. In the document, concerns about the office running as a campaign vs an official office of a councilmember were mentioned."
Ledsome asked Allen for a meeting on May 2 to discuss the document, during which Ledsome told Allen that Walsh didn't trust her and didn't want to communicate with her, according to Allen's letter. Allen was terminated the next day.
Allen's complaint includes the items outlined in that document, as well as additional concerns:
- "There has been a heavy campaign focus vs operating the office."
- "Heavy campaign focus takes away the ability for us to move and operate in our expertise — I do not think tasking Austin [another aide] and I with a media plan, is appropriate. That is not our expertise, nor were we at least given an example. The reasoning for a media strategy is so that CM Walsh gets news coverage which seems campaign-like."
- "Councilmember Walsh directed his campaign manager … to communicate on his behalf. I had concerns that miscommunications were taking place due to her unnecessary involvement."
- "In my role, I was tasked by Councilmember Walsh and Brianna to make community council visits to all 52 neighborhoods by November (before the election). I was sent a priority ward list via email from Brianna to tailor which neighborhoods I should visit in order."
- In an email dated April 24 from Ledsome to Walsh, Allen and three other aides (all on non-city email addresses) discusses a meeting to prep for an upcoming event hosted by Walsh's council office. In the email, Ledsome assigns tasks to Allen and another aide, and includes this note: "Spent a considerable amount of time discussing Media Strategy. Let Seth and I know if you have any questions as you dive in this week."
- Allen says staff were required to attend weekly "team meetings" at Ledsome's campaign office. Allen shared a screenshot of a Google calendar event titled "Team Meeting" scheduled for every Monday from 10-11 a.m. at 201 E Fifth Street, Suite 1900. The screenshot shows non-city email addresses for Walsh, Allen and two other aides.
- "There were also plenty conversations [sic] including a 'staff retreat' that was ran by Brianna. Again, this was tailored to her campaign agenda for Councilmember Walsh."
- "The office … ALL reported to Brianna Ledsome as well as Councilmember Walsh. All corresponding city documents had to be shared with Brianna as well."
- Allen shared a screenshot of an email from Walsh to two other aides about a week after Allen's termination. The email said, in part: "I want to clarify that all staff in the Council Office report directly to me as your supervisor. You do not in any way report to anyone beyond me. This is not a responsibility I delegate to any other individual either, especially anyone outside of the City Council office."
- Allen shared her initial employment offer, which came from Ledsome.
In an email sent May 11, Ethics and Good Government Director Chris Liu responded to Allen's complaint: "Article III of the Cincinnati Admin Code requires my office to investigate potential violations of ethics and conflict-of-interest laws. The use of city resources or personnel for campaign purposes falls within my jurisdiction," Liu wrote. "In addition, both the Cincinnati Municipal Code and the Code of Conduct prohibit retaliation against those who report suspected conflicts or unethical conduct."
Liu asked Allen several questions via email, including: "Were you ever asked by Councilmember Walsh to do campaign work on city time?" Allen responded, "No, not from Councilmember Walsh."
Liu asked, "Did Councilmember Walsh or his campaign ever offer you free living accommodations or reduced rent?" Allen responded, "Yes, I lived with Councilmember Walshs [sic] campaign manager for two months for free before relocating to Cincinnati."
After the investigation is complete, Council could choose to censure Walsh for violating the Code of Conduct. A censure requires a majority vote from at least five council members, and the member facing possible censure is not allowed to vote.
"We take any and all allegations of misconduct seriously," said Mayor Aftab Pureval in a statement to WVXU. "The city is already conducting an investigation, and we will act swiftly in response to any misconduct. We will not tolerate any inappropriate behavior that harms the public trust."
The mayor's office is separate from City Council.
This is the first City Council to sign a Code of Conduct, which was established in the aftermath of multiple bribery and corruption scandals in 2020. All council members and their staff are required to sign the document within 45 days of taking office (either by election or appointment) or being hired.
The Code of Conduct has 11 provisions, including that members of Council and their staff shall:
- "Commit to understanding and following the applicable ethics and conflict of interest laws."
- "Commit to never use city resources for personnel for political activity."
- "Cultivate a culture of reporting of conflicts of interest and unethical conduct and a commitment to avoid retaliating against those who report suspected conflicts or unethical conduct."
- "Report, without undue delay, to the City Manager, City Solicitor, Ohio Ethics Commission, or other appropriate authority, conduct in the performance of official duties that is reasonably believed to violate the law or reasonably believed to violate this code of conduct."
In response to a public records request, the Clerk of Council provided a copy of the Code of Conduct signed by Walsh on January 3, 2023. The Clerk's Office was unable to locate a copy signed by Allen.
See the full Code of Conduct below (story continues after):
The settlement agreement
Allen negotiated the settlement agreement with the city's law department.
The city agreed to pay $30,000, plus a payout of accrued sick and vacation time, though that amount is not specified. In exchange, Allen agrees not to sue the city, the mayor or council members.
"The city specifically denies committing any wrongful act, and has entered into this agreement solely in the interest of resolving all claims and issues related to Allen's employment and separation from the City of Cincinnati and avoiding the resources and expenses of litigation," the agreement says.
Read the full agreement below (story continues after):
The upcoming 2023 council election
Walsh has filed enough valid signatures to be on the November ballot, according to the Hamilton County Board of Elections.
All eight other council members have pulled petitions to collect signatures, and as of June 1 all but one — Liz Keating — has submitted enough valid signatures.
Another 18 people have pulled petitions to collect signatures; of those, two have so far submitted enough signatures: Anna Albi and Jaime Castle.
The filing deadline is Aug. 24.
The Hamilton County Democratic Party started its endorsement process in mid-April. An endorsement from the party holds a lot of weight. In the last election, eight of the nine endorsed Democrats won a seat on council.
Party officials are expected to announce endorsements in mid- to late-June.