City's attorney: Seelbach doesn't have to reimburse city for D.C. trip, but will anyhow

Official, two staffers got $1,218 from city

CINCINNATI -- A Cincinnati city councilman who flew to Washington, D.C., in May with two of his staffers to accept an award at the White House at taxpayer expense doesn’t have to reimburse the city, the city’s attorney has decided.

City Solicitor John Curp sent a letter Friday morning to an anti-tax group that had filed a complaint about the trip.

But Councilman Chris Seelbach said he would repay the city anyhow, to avoid a legal battle with the Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST).

"I refuse to spend tens of thousands of city, taxpayer dollars successfully defending a frivolous lawsuit from COAST over a $1,218.59 expense from White House Champion of Change trip," Seelbach wrote in an email.

"Even though the city's Law Department wants to go forward because the lawsuit is so frivolous, it's worth $1,218.59 of my personal money to save the city $30,000," Seelbach wrote. "So I'm writing a check today."

Like all City Council members, Seelbach is running for reelection. His email also makes a pitch for campaign donations.

"COAST will continue to attack me," Seelbach wrote. "Will you stand with me by making a final contribution to our campaign effort? Whether it's $25, $50, $250 or even $1,100. Every single dollar matters."

Attorney Chris Finney, a COAST leader, is satisfied with the outcome.

"He is paying the city back because of our letter," Finney said. "We saved $1,218 for the taxpayers."

Seelbach, the first openly gay politician to be elected to City Council, went to D.C. to accept the 2013 Harvey Milk “Champion of Change” Award.

Seelbach and his staff submitted vouchers about three weeks after the trip, seeking to be reimbursed a total of $1,218.

In Curp’s letter, he told COAST the trip benefited the city through good publicity and was a legitimate expense under the city’s charter.

“Reimbursement of an elected official and two employees for travel that benefits the city does not create any serious public injury,” the letter stated.

“At most, your letter complains that the approval and acceptance of the reimbursement is invalid because it occurred after the travel date,” Curp added. “That complaint alone is insufficient to have standing to bring this claim under Ohio law.”

Finney asked Curp in August to seek the reimbursement.

Under Ohio law, if Curp doesn't agree to get the money back, COAST may be able to sue the city on the taxpayers’ behalf. The tactic has been used by COAST against the city on at least four occasions in the past.

Generally, the Cincinnati Municipal Code requires that any council member get approval for travel expenses before he or she takes a trip, not afterward.

Travel is reimbursed if the person is conducting official city business.

In his letter, Curp said the White House’s restrictions on making the award known publicly was sufficient to explain why Seelbach didn’t seek prior approval.

“That is understandable given the fact that Councilmember Seelbach and his staff were instructed by the White House to not reveal the award until May 20, one day before they were supposed to depart for Washington, D.C.,” Curp wrote.

But that’s not what the White House notification stated.

A copy of the notice obtained by WCPO shows it was emailed to Seelbach on May 11. It stated, “Please do not share news of your nomination with members of the press or over social media.”

The notice added, “The White House will issue a list … one week prior to the event.”

Seelbach and staffers Shirley Dunham and Jon Harmon took the trip May 21-22, flying to Washington, D.C., from Louisville.

Seelbach and Dunham submitted their vouchers sometime between June 5 and June 13; Harmon submitted his voucher June 13.

Four City Council members signed off on the requests, letting Seelbach and his staffers get reimbursed for their airfare and hotel rooms.

The councilmembers were Yvette Simpson, Christopher Smitherman, Pamula Thomas and Wendell Young.

Curp’s letter also stated, “The city of Cincinnati is dedicated to equality for all. Demonstrating this fact to the public – especially on a national scale – not only improves the reputation of the city, but it also helps the city attract tourists, business, residents and employers.”

The Harvey Milk award recognizes community leaders who show a commitment to equality and public service.

The award is named for Milk, a politician who became the first openly gay person elected to public office in California when he won a seat on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in 1978. A disgruntled ex-colleague assassinated Milk 11 months into his term.

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