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Charlotte City Attorney Says Ethics Policy Is Broken, And Council Considers Changes

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City of Charlotte
In the last week, ethics complaints have been filed against at least four City Council members. The city attorney has said he will send at least three to an independent investigator.

In the last week, the Charlotte city attorney has said he will send ethics complaints against three City Council members to outside investigators.  

But the attorney, Patrick Baker, isn’t happy about it.

He said he has “significant concerns” with the city’s current method of handling ethics complaints. He said the current policy gives him little leeway to determine if a complaint has merit.

“The idea of a council member being under investigation – it sounds terrible,” Baker said. “Who wants to be under investigation? But the reality is that, under the way the policy is set up, somebody actually has to do a review of a complaint to determine if there is merit. And it’s clear that I don’t do that.”

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Credit WFAE
Patrick Baker

Some City Council members also want to change the process. 

“I think it’s been 'abused' is the term I’d use for it,” Republican Ed Driggs said. “'Weaponized' is an appropriate expression, as well. So now this is becoming a means for council members to attack each other.”

The council’s budget committee on Tuesday voted to tweak the ethics policy. 

Instead of sending complaints to an investigator, they would be sent to an outside law firm that will decide if they have merit. If the complaint appeared to have merit, it would then be sent to an investigator.

The full council will vote on the change next month.

The controversy began last month when council members voted against giving $1.5 million in federal COVID relief money to Carolina Fintech for a job-training program. Fintech’s CEO is Republican council member Tariq Bokhari. Colleagues said it was inappropriate for his firm to receive the money.

The state Republican Party fired back. It filed two detailed ethics complaints against two Democratic council members, James Mitchell and Dimple Ajmera.

The GOP said Mitchell took a taxpayer-funded trip to see Detroit sports stadiums and inappropriately shared information about his visit with his former employer, a construction firm. The party accused Ajmera of soliciting campaign contributions from developers before rezoning votes.

Both Mitchell and Ajmera said they did nothing wrong.

Baker is still reviewing complaints against Bokhari over the Fintech contract that was scrapped. He said that he wouldn’t forward those complaints to an investigator since the council’s vote nullified the issue. He is reaching out to the people who made the complaints to see if they have any more information about Bokhari’s conduct.

Bokhari has said he would not have profited from the contract.

Over the weekend, a Charlotte resident filed a new complaint against Bokhari about campaign contributions – using similar language to the state Republican party’s complaint against Ajmera over the same issue.

Baker sent that ethics complaint to an independent investigator. That generated a series of negative news stories about Bokhari.

“I’m struggling with (what to do) right now,” Baker said. “Should I even be doing anything other than looking for coherent sentences and moving (the complaints) along? I don’t know.”

Baker says he doesn’t know if any other city or town in the state with a similar policy.

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Credit Corine Mack
A screenshot of an ethics complaint filed by Corine Mack.

On Tuesday, Corine Mack with the Charlotte-Mecklenburg NAACP sent media outlets new complaints filed against Bokhari, as well as Democratic at-large council member Julie Eiselt. One complaint against Eiselt is about her accepting campaign contributions. Another alleges that she was "disrespectful" to Mack during a meeting.

The current flap over Charlotte’s ethics policy began five years ago after former mayor Patrick Cannon was arrested on federal corruption charges in March 2014.

City Council then looked to strengthen its ethics policy. While it decided against requiring lobbyists to register with the city, they did change the way the city handles ethics complaints.

One of those changes: All ethics complaints against council members would be sent to an outside investigator. The former city attorney, Bob Hagemann, said at the time he wasn’t comfortable investigating council members, who are his bosses.

Go behind the headlines with WFAE political reporter Steve Harrison in his weekly newsletter, Inside Politics. Steve will provide insight about and analysis of local and statewide politics. Readers will gain an understanding of political news on the horizon and why it matters.

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