CINCINNATI — On the day the city paid $55,000 to end a deal with a politically connected subcontractor, phone records show Assistant City Manager John Juech made two calls from his city cell phone: One to that subcontractor, and a minute later, another to Councilman Charlie Winburn's office.
The calls are significant in that the subcontractor — Sam Malone — has a long and well-known friendship with Winburn. Winburn denies he ever spoke with Juech or anyone else in the administration about Malone's contract or that final payment.
Juech said Thursday morning he had a number of discussions with Malone about the close-out on Malone's consulting relationship with Bricker and Eckler, a Columbus-based law firm and contractor to the Metropolitan Sewer District of Greater Cincinnati.
The law firm terminated Malone's subcontract on May 27, 2015, after its attorneys and City Manager Harry Black became uncomfortable with the arrangement — one in which no one at the firm oversaw Malone's work, but rather acted as a conduit for payment from MSD to Malone. Then-MSD Director Tony Parrott was responsible for signing off on Malone's work.
The city sent Bricker a final payment of $55,000 for Malone on June 11, 2015. That evening, at 6:18 p.m., Juech placed a call to Malone from his city-issued cell phone.
"I believe I was calling him in response to many calls I received from him," Juech said.
Immediately afterward, at 6:19 p.m., records show Juech placed a call to Winburn's City Hall office. He said he doesn't recall the specific reason for the call — "I speak to Mr. Winburn multiple times, sometimes multiple times an hour." At the time, Juech was a senior policy adviser to Black and acted as a liaison to City Council.
However, Juech did say Winburn "was interested" in ensuring Malone was paid.
So did Winburn pressure the administration to pay Malone?
"Mr. Winburn was interested in making sure that Mr. Malone was paid on what he believed to be a legitimate claim," Juech replied.
Winburn said Thursday he "absolutely did not speak" with Juech or anyone else in the administration about the Malone contract.
"But if I had, it wouldn't have been illegal," he said.
Winburn guessed Juech "probably assumed" he'd be interested based on his well-known friendship with Malone.
Winburn said he thinks everyone on City Council knew Malone wanted to be paid.
"He was running around to all the Council offices on the third floor," Winburn said.
Juech's call to Winburn's City Hall office was about a minute long; Winburn noted he typically speaks to people on the phone for far longer than a minute. And, Winburn said, it wouldn't have made sense for Juech to call his City Hall office, rather than his cell phone, if it were a call about his personal friend.
Asked if he'd spoken with Winburn about the Malone contract, or, at least, how he knew Winburn was "interested," Juech replied via a statement through city spokesman Rocky Merz: "(Winburn) did have an interest in the Malone contract but only to make sure that all city contractors and subcontractors were being treated fairly by the City Administration."
Juech has denied the allegation, which came to light during an audit of MSD earlier this year. None of Juech's city phone records — landline and cell phone — show any calls to Bricker on June 11.
Call logs from Juech's personal cell phone, with a Washington D.C. telephone number, also showed no calls to Bricker. Juech placed two calls from the personal phone on June 11: One to Deputy City Solicitor Luke Blocher's personal cell phone, at 1:16 p.m., and another to the personal cell phone of Pete Metz, Vice Mayor David Mann's chief of staff, at 6:17 p.m. Metz replaced Juech when Juech moved from Mann's office to the city manager's office.
"No one worked harder than me to get this audit committee set up," Juech said Thursday. And, he said he believed he was acting in the city's best interest to quickly end Malone's consulting arrangement.
Gina Marsh, who at the time was a city attorney working closely with Bricker, said after Wednesday's special meeting that her boss told her City Manager Harry Black was threatening to terminate the contract if the firm didn't make a swift payment.
"It was actually my supervisor, Luke Blocher, who told me that he had spoken with the city manager, and that the city manager said that the payment needed to be made within 48 hours or the Bricker contract would be terminated," she said. "That is the message that I passed along to Mark Evans."
Black denied telling city staff to threaten the firm.
Quintin Lindsmith, a Bricker attorney, said this week the firm "wholeheartedly" stands by Evans.