Aide to Mayor Gorton steps down from consulting company paid to work on 3 council races

A staffer in Lexington Mayor Linda Gorton’s office has left a consulting firm that has received more than $4,000 for consulting work for three council candidates running in the November election, city officials confirmed this week.

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Andrea James, a special projects coordinator on Gorton’s staff, has agreed to divest herself from S & A Strategies, a consulting firm started by James and Sarah Brown, after Gorton became aware that S & A was being paid as a consultant for three council candidates, two of whom are running against incumbents, said Susan Straub, a spokeswoman for the city.

James said she never worked on any of the campaigns, and there was a “firewall “ between James and Brown, Straub said.

“In August 2020, upon finding out about the company’s involvement in the campaigns, the mayor acted immediately. Mayor Gorton strictly follows the Ethics Act,” Straub said. “She consulted the law department, which found that Ms. James’ ownership of the company was a conflict of interest and a violation of the Ethics Act. The mayor required Ms. James to resolve the conflict as a condition of continued employment in the mayor’s office. Ms. James agreed and divested herself of any interest in the company.”

In a Jan. 5, 2019, Facebook post, S & A Strategies announced James had taken a position in the mayor’s office and that “with Andrea’s career shift, S & A will continue to be a functioning and thriving company with an increased emphasis on the development of local campaign strategies and candidate preparation with co-founder and senior consultant Sarah Brown as its lead.”

S & A Strategies was created in 2016, according to business filings with the Kentucky Secretary of State. James was listed as an officer of the company on July 7. But an amendment filed Aug. 14, listed Brown as the registered agent and manager of the company.

Kentucky Registry of Election Finance campaign records shows S, and A Strategies was paid for campaign consulting work for Jessica Mohler, who is running against Hannah LeGris in the Urban County Council’s 3rd District; Liz Sheehan, who is running in the 5th District against incumbent Councilman Bill Farmer Jr.; and Christian Motley, who is running in the 8th District against incumbent Councilman Fred Brown. In total, S & A Strategies received $4,085 from the three campaigns.

It is not improper or unethical for campaigns to hire S & A Strategies.

The Lexington-Fayette Urban County Government ethics code prohibits employees from being employed in a private business that could conflict with their official duties. The ethics code also prohibits public employees from profiting — through outside employment — from those public jobs.

That code says: “No officer or employee, or any immediate family member of any officer or employee, shall have a financial or private interest in a business or engage in any business, transaction, or activity, which is in conflict with the proper discharge of the officer’s or employee’s public duties.”

That ethics act was revised in 2017, Straub said. “The conflict of interest provision now includes private interest, as well as financial interest.”

Straub said Gorton told James she could not work on campaigns when she was appointed to her current position in 2019, shortly after Gorton took office. James has served as Gorton’s point person for opioid-related issues.

In a statement, Brown said James thought she and Gorton had resolved the issue about S&A Strategies in 2019.

“A direct conversation between Andrea and the mayor led to an employment agreement — which all believed to be without an ethical conflict — that has been maintained,” Brown said. “Now, almost two years later, a concern has arisen about a ‘private interest’ conflict. When Andrea was made aware of this possible conflict of interest and presented possible options, out of an abundance of care, with respect for the mayor and love for the community, Andrea divested in S and A Strategies within days, even though ‘private interest’ conflicts do not seem to refer to employees.”

The employment of S & A Strategies by a candidate does not mean Gorton endorses the candidate, Straub said.

“The mayor does not take a position on council candidates,” Straub said. “ Even in cases where there have been council vacancies, and she has appointed council members, Mayor Gorton has required that the appointees (Mark Swanson and Lisa Higgins-Hord) agree that they will not run for the council office in the next election.”

Gorton appointed Swanson to fill the unexpired term of late Councilman Jake Gibbs after he died suddenly in March. Higgins-Hord has been appointed to fill the unexpired term of Councilwoman Angela Evans, who resigned to attend graduate school in July.

“The mayor has now required all mayor’s office employees to read and familiarize themselves with the requirements of the Ethics Act,” Straub said.

The Herald-Leader requested a copy of James’ financial disclosure form through an Open Records Act request. James is not required to file one, city officials said. A financial disclosure form lists private employment, among other things.

Elected officials, many senior-level staffers and some members of key commissions, such as the planning commission, must fill out annual financial disclosure forms. Most members of the mayor’s staff are not required to do so, according to the city’s ethics code.

James is a former council member. S & A Strategies also worked on Gorton’s successful mayoral campaign in 2018, according to campaign finance records.

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©2020 the Lexington Herald-Leader (Lexington, Ky.)

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