This story was updated May 16, 2018, at 11:59 p.m. with more information.
An East Ridge citizen has filed an ethics complaint against Mayor Brent Lambert, saying $3,000 in campaign contributions he received in 2017 amount to gifts for past actions.
Laura Seneker said Lambert called a special meeting on June 2, 2017, "for no apparent reason," pushed through a resolution that authorized $4 million for infrastructure on Exit 1, and then 12 days later received $5,000 in campaign contributions, $3,000 of which came from developers working on that project.
Lambert hadn't had a campaign going since 2014, when he finished $9,100 in debt, Seneker's complaint says. He accepted the contributions, wrote himself a $5,300 check from his campaign and deposited the money into his personal bank account, the complaint says.
Lambert did not return a call for comment Wednesday. But he has previously defended the contributions, saying they were unrelated to the $4 million and that East Ridge frequently votes on Exit 1 matters. There is nothing illegal about the contributions, either.
But in Seneker's complaint, which she filed Tuesday with East Ridge City Attorney Mark Litchford, Seneker pointed to a 2006 ethics ordinance that says city officials may not accept any money or gifts that "reasonably may be interpreted as an attempt to influence his decision." East Ridge adopted that ordinance under then-Mayor Vince Dean in response to state legislation that required municipalities to do so.
It's the same ordinance defense attorney Lee Davis referenced last week in a subpoena asking Lambert to come to Hamilton County Criminal Court on June 5. Davis is defending District 8 Hamilton County Commissioner Tim Boyd in the criminal extortion case Lambert brought earlier this year when they were election opponents.
In 2008, East Ridge residents filed a petition to oust then- Mayor Mike Steele, but that case went through Hamilton County Criminal Court and a judge ultimately dismissed it.
Litchford, to whom the complaint is addressed, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. Regardless, Seneker said Litchford should recuse himself because he works in the same law firm as former East Ridge City Attorney John Anderson, who is also Lambert's personal lawyer.
"You have an obvious conflict of interest in evaluating the facts of the ethics complaint against Mayor Lambert," the complaint says. "My suggestion is that you take immediate action to consult with City Manager Scott Miller. Then I suggest you retain independent outside counsel to do full and proper research of all pertinent and relative case law to judge the facts."
In her complaint, Seneker said a citizen tried to dig deeper, asking Lambert in 2017 why the $4 million resolution wasn't discussed at a regularly scheduled meeting. The citizen was told "there was no need to wait another week to start the work," the complaint says. Seneker said that explanation didn't make sense, since the Exit 1 development has been going on for years. The $4 million is one of several payments related to that development.
Seneker added East Ridge taxpayers continue to pay for the development when the property owners should be footing the bill.
"When Life Care Centers decided to rebuild its flagship facility at Exit 1, the owners, not the taxpayers, paid for improvements to the exit ramp," the complaint says. "Similarly, next year when the [Interstate 75/Interstate 24] interchange is scheduled to be rebuilt, the owners of Hamilton Place mall (CBL & Associates), not the taxpayers, will be paying for its own southbound I-75 exit ramp and bridge that will deposit cars directly into Hamilton Place mall.
"The owners, the beneficiaries of those improvements, rightfully are footing the bill," the complaint continues. "Not so with Exit 1, where the citizens of East Ridge are paying that bill."
Contact staff writer Zack Peterson at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6347. Follow him on Twitter @zackpeterson918.