Cincinnati Vice Mayor Alicia Reece has illegally used her public office for private gain, according to a complaint with the Ohio Ethics Commission.
The complaint, filed April 29 by political activist Nate Livingston, accuses Reece of "introducing, discussing and voting for legislation that directly benefited or had the potential to benefit her personally, her business interest and her family's business interest."
Reece is director of creative services for Reece and Reece Business Group, whose subsidiary companies include Integrity Hall, Communiplex Promotional Services and others headed by her father, Steve Reece.
The complaint accuses Alicia Reece of pushing for city projects to enhance Bond Hill businesses, including her family's commercial enterprises. The complaint also accuses Reece of having a private contract with an organization that receives city funds.
Reece referred questions about the complaint to her attorney, Ross Wright, who says Livingston's allegations have no merit.
"There's been no violation of any ethical laws under Ohio ethics laws," Wright says. "None of his allegations have any merit whatsoever. This complaint is not worth the paper it's written on."
Good for the neighborhood
City council records show Alicia Reece introduced and voted for legislation to help Bond Hill.
Improving neighborhoods is part of council's job. But council members are supposed to abstain from votes on matters that would financially benefit them.
In May 2000, Reece introduced a motion calling for $30 million in improvements for the Seymour Avenue Business District. Integrity Hall is at 2081 Seymour Ave. Reece proposed the city develop the area into a retail, commercial, housing, entertainment and recreational district.
"I further move that the city manager convene a meeting within the next seven days with the business owners in the Seymour Avenue Business District and our city's Economic Development, Neighborhood Services, Planning and Safety departments to discuss this development," the motion said.
Reece identified the business owners she wanted invited. Second on the list of 19 names was her father, Steve Reece, president of Reece and Reece.
The motion called for designating $30 million for development and implementing safety and public improvement initiatives. Reece also wanted to "make all city programs available to the members of the Seymour Avenue Business District, such as tax abatements, grants, etc."
City administrators urged council to develop a plan before proceeding. Antoinette Selvey-Maddox, acting director of the Department of Economic Development, wrote a report May 24, 2000.
"Allocating $30 million for the redevelopment of Seymour Avenue Business District is premature without developing a plan and identifying key projects to encourage new investment," the report said. "As a result, the administration recommends that a redevelopment plan for the Seymour Avenue Business District be completed."
Reece said at the time she was aware of the appearance of a conflict of interest, according to an article in the May 18, 2000 Cincinnati Enquirer. Reece promised not to vote when council considered her own motion.
But in March 2001, Reece voted to support an ordinance submitted by Peg Moertl, then director of neighborhood services, designating Seymour Avenue as a Community Reinvestment Area. Because of the designation, "property owners located in the Seymour Avenue Business District, including Ms. Reece and her family, are eligible for tax abatements on property improvements," Livingston's complaint says.
The Cincinnati Planning Commission approved the Seymour Business District Plan in October 2000, according to Selvey-Maddox. Her December 19, 2001 report identifies Integrity Hall as one of the anchors of the business district at its eastern boundary.
Although city council has not approved the $30 million project Reece proposed, approximately $1.75 million was approved for the central area at Reading Road and Seymour Avenue, according to Selvey-Maddox.
Livingston alleges Reece used the authority and influence of her official position to have the business district plan created by the city, approved by the planning commission and then by city council.
"What we have here is simple," Livingston's complaint says. "Ms. Reece introduced, discussed and eventually voted on a motion that instructed the city to 'make all city programs available to the members of the Seymour Avenue Business District, such as tax abatements, grants, etc.' Her business, located at Integrity Hall, is one of the members of the Seymour Avenue Business District. Ms. Reece voted to make all city programs, including tax abatements and grants, available to herself and her business."
Reece testified in support of the plan at several meetings of the planning commission and actively lobbied for its approval, the complaint says.
"Ms. Reece interviewed the director of the commission on her weekly radio show and instructed her to ensure that the commission passed the plan," Livingston wrote. "The commission on October 20, 2000 in fact approved the plan."
In December 2001, Reece introduced and voted for a motion that the city start a loan fund for Seymour Avenue businesses.
"I move that the city establish a loan fund for any additional monies received from the Post Office as a result of the decision not to construct a new postal facility and that such funds be made available for neighborhood investment projects including, but not limited to, the DeSales Corner (Walnut Hills) and Seymour redevelopment (Bond Hill/Roselawn) projects," Reece wrote. "It is expected that the Post Office will return $2.5 million to the city of Cincinnati because of the decision not to build a new postal facility. Council, as part of the budget process, has set aside $1 million for capital arts projects. The majority of the funds, however, should be set aside for our neighborhoods."
'It looks bad'
Livingston's ethics complaint also questions Reece's work for an agency that receives city funds.
Communiplex Promotional Services, a Reece family company, used to have a contract with the Urban League of Greater Cincinnati, according to Sheila Adams, president of the Urban League.
Reece was first elected to council in 1999. The Urban League's 2000 annual report features a photo of Reece, identifying her as the coordinator of its Young Professionals Network.
"She actually, I think, ran the program for us," Adams says.
In an October 2000 letter, Adams wrote, "The League has a contract with Communiplex Promotional Services, Mr. Steven Reece, president; and the program is funded by private dollars. As a vice president of Communiplex Promotional Services, Ms. Reece is assigned to coordinate and manage this contract."
Adams says the Urban League receives funding from the city, but it is not a large percentage of the organization's budget.
Reece's company no longer holds the contract.
"There's no current contract with Communiplex," Adams says.
Livingston says Alicia Reece should not have taken the job, because the city gives money to the Urban League. Reece herself seems to have acknowledged a conflict of interest. On Dec. 19, 2000, Councilwoman Minette Cooper recommended the city allocate $50,000 for Solid Opportunities Advancement and Retention, a three-week job readiness training program operated by the Urban League. Reece excused herself from voting on the motion.
Councilman David Crowley does not believe Reece has done anything unethical.
"On the one hand, while it looks bad, on the other hand, she's been so blatant about it it's hard to accuse her of anything underhanded," Crowley says. "I think it was poor political judgment."
Other council members declined to be quoted.
Wright says Reece wants to keep moving the city forward.
"She intends, despite all of these things that have been brought up week by week, to move the city forward and not be bogged down by a bunch of foolishness," he says. "Anybody can make an allegation, but the question is, 'Can you prove it?' We can't stop them from throwing rocks, but they're not going to hit."
David Freel, executive director of the Ohio Ethics Commission, says Ohio law forbids him from confirming or denying a complaint has been received. If a case is investigated and criminal wrongdoing is discovered, the ethics commission forwards the case to a county prosecutor. ©