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Charlotte City Attorney Sends Complaint Against Bokhari To Investigator, Calls Process 'Problematic'

Charlotte Mecklenburg Government Center

Charlotte City Attorney Patrick Baker told City Council Monday morning that he will hire an independent investigator to review an ethics complaint against Republican council member Tariq Bokhari.

Credit city of Charlotte
Tariq Bokhari

Over the weekend, the attorney said he is required to hire an investigator to review complaints against Democratic council members Dimple Ajmera and James Mitchell

The complaints against Mitchell and Ajmera were made by the state Republican Party after council members voted 9-1 in late July not to award Bokhari’s company, Carolina Fintech Hub, a $1.5 million contract for workforce training.

Bokhari has said he did nothing wrong and that City Manager Marcus Jones asked Carolina Fintech to help with job training.

Baker said in an email to council members that he is obligated to send a complaint made by Charlotte resident Brandon Forbes against Bokhari to an investigator. That complaint focuses on campaign contributions Bokhari received and is almost identical to a complaint the state GOP made against Ajmera.

But in emails to council members, Baker has essentially said his hands are tied by the city’s current ethics policy. In an email Sunday, Baker wrote that the policy doesn't provide the city attorney an opportunity to conduct a "substantive review" of a complaint before deciding whether or not to hire an outside firm to investigate.

He said that if an allegation meets minimum standards, he is required to investigate.

"I am not aware of any jurisdiction in North Carolina (or anywhere else) with an ethics policy that would yield a similar result," he wrote.

In his email to council members on Monday, Baker wrote again that the policy is problematic.

“I will not belabor the point of my serious concerns regarding the limitations of my review of these complaints imposed by Subsection D of the ethics policy,” he wrote. 

Credit city of Charlotte
Dimple Ajmera

Five years ago, City Council changed the way it handles ethics complaints. In the wake of former mayor Patrick Cannon’s arrest, council members were looking to strengthen its ethics policies for things such as accepting gifts.

Before 2015, the city attorney was responsible for investigating ethics complaints against elected officials.

Then-city attorney Bob Hageman told council he wasn’t comfortable doing that because he would be investigating his bosses. So the council decided that the attorney would make only a cursory review of a complaint. If it met a minimum standard it would be sent to an outside investigator.

The controversy over the Fintech contract set off a back-and-forth over the various ethics complaints against council members.

The GOP complaint against Mitchell focused on a November 2018 taxpayer-funded trip he made to Detroit. That trip was reported on by WBTV.

Mitchell went to Detroit to see the city’s professional sports stadiums. WBTV reported that Mitchell communicated directly with the Carolina Panthers and then forward emails from him and the team to the construction firm Barton Malow, where Mitchell used to work. Mitchell now works for another construction firm, JE Dunn.

The GOP complaint said that JE Dunn and Barton Malow have been in partnerships, but Mitchell said Sunday the two firms haven't worked together.

Credit city of Charlotte
Charlotte City Council member James Mitchell

"I took a lot of trips on the interest of City Council, and that was my job as economic development chair," Mitchell said.

The state GOP’s ethics complaint against Ajmera focuses on campaign contributions she received that the party says coincided with votes on rezoning petitions. The GOP said that Ajmera “has used her official position, particularly in rezoning cases, to directly engage with those from the real estate community who have a business in front of the council to solicit campaign contributions.”

Ajmera said she welcomes the investigation and that the real estate industry made up less than 10% of her campaign contributions in the last election. She said it's "absurd" that campaign contributions influence her vote.

She pointed to a 2019 article in the Charlotte Ledger that said she had the lowest percentage of campaign contributions from the real estate and building industry among council incumbents.