City Council

City Attorney (Still) Sweeping Corruption Under the Rug

Tariq Bokhari’s corruption will go on — with an assist from the city’s attorney.

Councilman Tariq Bokhari is poised to get away with his years-long, ongoing corruption — thanks to the city’s attorney.

Charlotte City Attorney Patrick Baker informed City Council this weekend that a 17-page, 5,000-word complaint detailing Councilman Bokhari’s long-standing merger of his public office with his private financial interests fails to meet the “minimum technical requirements” necessary to warrant an independent investigation.

The complaint, which I authored, can be found here.

“I am not able to conclude that [the complaint] meet[s] the requirements … to state with specificity the facts that form the basis of the alleged violations,” Baker wrote to council members. The lengthy complaint, he said, is insufficient because it relies on “conclusory statements and generalizations of ethical violations.”

City Attorney Patrick Baker explained in an email to council members this weekend that a 17-page, 5,000-word ethics complaint against Councilman Tariq Bokhari lacks sufficient specificity to warrant referral to an outside investigator.

The city’s ethics policy installs Baker as a gatekeeper to review complaints before they are referred to outside investigators. This places Baker in an awkward position: He is one of a very few city employees, including the city manager and city clerk, who are directly hired by City Council. Thus, for him to assess whether a council member should be investigated is, at best, an imperfect arrangement. (City Council should replace this current procedure with a mechanism whereby a simple majority of the Council can refer a colleague for investigation. This would promote democratic accountability, requiring elected officials to say on the record whether they believe corruption like Bokhari’s is unacceptable and, therefore, in need of further scrutiny.)

That said, under the current, imperfect procedure, it’s important to understand that Baker’s role is limited, as he made clear in his email to Council this weekend. His gatekeeper function does not in any way involve an assessment of whether the behavior complained of is, in fact, a violation of the city’s ethics policy. Instead, Baker is charged with the duty of determining only whether the complaint meets three “technical requirements” to merit referral to an outside investigator: The complaint must 1) identify the complainant, 2) “state with specificity the facts that form the basis for the alleged violation,” and 3) cite the provision of the ethics policy that was allegedly violated.

Baker concluded that while the complaint against Bokhari met the first and third criteria — my name was on the complaint and it alleged the councilman violated the provision of the ethics policy that prohibits council members from “us[ing] their official position for personal gain” — it failed to meet the second criterion because it lacked specificity.

The roughly 5,000-word complaint canvassed the many ways Bokhari has used his public office to promote the so-called “fintech”industry, which pays him $200,000 a year to lead Carolina Fintech Hub, the local industry’s self-styled “mini-chamber of commerce.” The online version of the complaint includes hyperlinks to scores of sources that corroborate the overarching allegation that Bokhari has regularly used his seat on city council to promote the fintech industry and, consequently, his own financial interests.

At the same time that Baker concluded Bokhari’s large-scale corruption can continue unmolested despite a detailed complaint from a city resident, he also informed City Council that two complaints filed from Raleigh by the North Carolina Republican Party are sufficiently specific to merit referral to outside investigators.

A GOP complaint against Councilman James “Smuggie” Mitchell alleges he spent about $1,400 in city money in 2018 to travel to Detroit for reasons unrelated to city business. The complaint against Councilwoman Dimple Ajmera accuses her of accepting campaign donations from developers with business before the Council — something that virtually every council member does, and often much more lucratively than Ajmera, according to a previously published report.

Of course, smaller, discrete instances of alleged corruption should be investigated. If Mitchell or Ajmera violated the public trust, they ought to be held to account.

Baker’s conclusion, though, that the complaints about their potential ethical breaches somehow clear the low bar of meeting the “technical requirements” necessary to warrant further inquiry, while the well-documented complaint detailing Bokhari’s years-long pattern and practice of corruption does not, makes a mockery of the city’s ethics policy.

It also represents a choice by Baker to become complicit in Bokhari’s corruption.

Update, August 16, 2020, 7:30 p.m.:

City Attorney Patrick Baker wrote an email to council members this evening regarding the status of pending ethics complaints against Bokhari.

“Any statement or suggestion that I have completed the review of the 3 complaints I cited in last night’s email against Councilmember Bokhari is not accurate,” he wrote. “As I said last night, as directed by the policy, I will be contacting those complainants to provide them with an opportunity to provide more specific facts to support the basis of their allegations. I will provide you with an update when that supplemental process is complete.”

Baker did not explain to Council what “more specific facts” he might be seeking that are not already contained in the 17-page, 5,000-word complaint filed against Bokhari. (Nor, as the author of that complaint, can I think of anything else that might be added.)

In his email, Baker also reiterated his reasonable, previously stated concerns about the role the ethics policy creates for him in the review process.

The solution to that problem would be for City Council to install itself as the arbiter of which complaints warrant further investigation — and then make the complaint against Bokhari its first referral.

Update, August 17, 11:30 a.m.

City Attorney Patrick Baker has now told City Council that an ethics complaint regarding Bokhari will be referred to an outside investigator.

The complaint is limited to the same sorts of allegations made by the North Carolina Republican Party against Ajmera, namely that Bokhari took money from developers with business before City Council. As noted above, this is the sort of relatively unremarkable behavior engaged in by virtually every member of Council.

Meanwhile, Baker continues to maintain that Bokhari’s long-standing pattern and practice of using his public office to further his financial interests fails to meet the requirement of alleging specific facts sufficient to warrant further investigation.

Judge for yourself whether there is a lack of specificity in the 17-page, 5,000-word complaint, which can be found here.

Baker’s refusal to refer this complaint for further investigation makes little sense when considered in light of the complaints he is referring to outside investigators. Here’s why:

The essence of those complaints is that developers gave money to council members while council members were called on to perform official duties related to the contributors’ business activities. The investigation will presumably determine whether those contributions improperly influenced the recipients.

This same dynamic animates the complaint documenting Bokhari’s long-standing corruption: In his official capacity on City Council, Bokhari has been called on to perform official duties — and has, in fact, performed those duties — inextricably linked to the business activities of parties that pay him a direct financial benefit. The only meaningful difference between the scenarios is that the financial benefit Bokhari receives as a result of his long-standing, ongoing corruption dwarfs the campaign contributions the city attorney thinks warrant further investigation.

Baker’s message to Council is clear: When it comes to corruption, go big.

By Michael F. Roessler

Charlotte citizen. Husband. Lawyer. Dog dad. Book worm.

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