City Council thinks it has a problem.
Not, mind you, an ethics problem. But an image problem. A public relations problem. An optics problem.
The recent flurry of ethics complaints against Charlotte’s elected officials looks bad, and that, perhaps unlike corruption, is intolerable.
“I think what we need to do now is to stop the bleeding of the frivolous complaints,” Councilman Malcolm Graham said at an August 18 meeting of the city’s Budget and Effectiveness Committee.
Councilman Ed Driggs, who chairs the committee, agreed it was imperative to address the image problem.
“I do think it would be beneficial for the purposes of public perception if we were seen to address this issue as a committee” by recommending a tweak to the city’s ethics policy, he said.
The minor change Driggs proposed would remove the label “investigation” from the process of an outside investigator assessing potential ethics violations by elected officials. Doing so would remove “the stigma aspect” faced by an elected official under investigation, he explained, and would address the “perception problems” surrounding the pending complaints and any future complaints.
This would be only right, according to Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt, who reacted angrily at the budget committee meeting to the filing of an ethics complaint against her.
“I don’t think it’s fair to have on the record that there’s an investigation against me when, in fact, outside counsel might determine the investigation was not valid for whatever reason,” she said. (As an aside, will council members agree to adopt a policy applying this standard to those under investigation by law enforcement for alleged, but unproven, criminal activity?)
At the time of the committee meeting, the complaint against Eiselt, like some of the complaints filed against other council members, arose from her seemingly unremarkable receipt of campaign contributions from people with business before the city.
Unless there is a change to the policy, she said she would ensure all council members get similar complaints filed against them. “If that’s where everyone wants to go with this, I’ll make sure we go there,” Eiselt threatened. (Since the budget committee meeting, another complaint has been lodged against Eiselt, this one alleging she used racially insensitive language during a community meeting.)
Council members who do not serve on the budget committee agreed that recent complaints look bad.
Councilman Larken Egleston observed on Flashpoint, a local Sunday news show, “It’s really making us look kind of silly.” He dismissed the pending ethics complaints as “just a way to attack folks they disagree with.”
Egleston, a Democrat, now has a complaint lodged against him alleging, in part, that campaign contributions from the travel, tourism, and hospitality industries influenced his decision to vote in favor of bringing the Republican National Convention to Charlotte. The complaint also suggests Egleston’s employment with a wholesaler of wine and spirits improperly influenced his vote.
Councilman Tariq Bokhari, who appeared on Flashpoint with Egleston, agreed. “It’s definitely being politicized,” he observed. “We’ve got to get past this.”
Bokhari, no doubt, would like very much for everyone to move on. If he can help convince the public that the pending ethics complaints are nothing but dirty politics, Bokhari stands a chance of distracting from his own long-standing, lucrative corruption, which is the subject of a complaint alleging he has engaged in a years-long campaign of using his public office for personal gain.
To that end, Bokhari is putting pressure on City Attorney Patrick Baker, pushing for a reading of the ethics policy that would, not surprisingly, help Bokhari.
In a confidential attorney-client email Bokhari sent on August 17 to Baker and his colleagues on Council, the councilman warned of “the broader implications of this politically-based distraction as it continues to spiral out of control.” If Baker doesn’t bury the complaints, “all of us will be in for a long several months of baseless, politically motivated attacks distracting from the actual work we need to be doing right now.”
Baker plays a key role in the procedure erected by the ethics policy. He is charged with the duty of determining whether a complaint sufficiently alleges wrongdoing to merit referral to outside investigators. In other words, Baker is the only thing standing between Bokhari and an independent review of his corruption.
In his effort to persuade Baker, Bokhari sought in his recent email to put his own, self-serving gloss on the ethics policy.
As written, the policy straightforwardly prohibits Council members from “us[ing] their official position for personal gain.”
In Bokhari’s hands, the policy narrows. He wrote that he believes allegations of wrongdoing cannot be referred for further investigation unless based on facts “unique to the actions of a single council member.”
Whereas the policy as written prohibits a council member from engaging in actions that personally benefit him, Bokhari’s preferred interpretation is that behavior is prohibited as unethical if, and only if, the behavior itself is unique to a single council member.
The import of this distinction cannot be overstated.
Recall that Bokhari earns $200,000 a year as the chief executive officer of Carolina Fintech Hub, an organization that Bokhari has likened to a mini-chamber of commerce for the local fintech industry. In his role as a paid, private-sector advocate for fintech, Bokhari’s own financial interests are furthered by the expansion of the industry in Charlotte.
At the same time Bokhari has been working for Carolina Fintech Hub, he has used his public office to promote the fintech industry, going so far as to make the industry’s growth one of the key planks in his platform of work as an elected official.
In sum, then, he has used his seat on Council to advance his own financial interests by advocating for the fintech industry, which employs him as the leader of its self-styled mini-chamber of commerce.
Under Bokhari’s favored interpretation of the ethics policy, this would not be problematic because his advocacy for the fintech industry is not something he alone has engaged in; all Council members have done the same because they think expansion of the fintech industry is good for Charlotte. In other words, his behavior has not been unique and is, therefore, unobjectionable.
This, however, is not the standard that actually exists in the ethics policy. The policy does not prohibit behavior unique to a Council member. Rather, the policy prohibits a Council member from receiving a personal benefit from his behavior as a public official.
This only makes sense.
Suppose a Council member worked for an organization that was among the contenders to get a city contract. It would be incorrect for him to argue that since every other Council member is voting on the contract, it would be fine for him to do so, too, because there would be nothing unique about his doing so.
Instead, this councilman would be expected to recuse himself from the matter because he, alone among Council members, would stand to receive a unique, personal benefit from the awarding of the contract.
So it has been with Bokhari and his advocacy as a city councilman on behalf of the fintech industry. He has a direct, personal financial interest in the fintech industry. As a result, he has personally gained from his Council-based advocacy on behalf of the industry. And that means Bokhari has behaved unethically during his years-long campaign to use his public office to advocate for the fintech industry in general and his employer in particular.
Viewed properly, not as Bokhari would like, the gravamen of the ethics policy is not whether a Council member’s behavior has been unique, but whether he’s personally gained from his behavior.
To determine whether there is sufficient evidence that someone has run afoul of this standard such that an outside ethics investigation is warranted, Bokhari himself, in his email to Baker, identified the proper question the city attorney should ask. All that is required, Bokhari explained, is a “plausible link” between the facts alleged in a complaint and a violation of the ethics policy.
The complaint alleging that Bokhari has engaged in a sustained campaign to benefit himself by using his seat on Council to advocate for his employer clears this low bar of plausibility. An outside investigation of Bokhari’s corruption is therefore warranted.
Yet, further investigation may go undone.
Council was poised to do something last week about all this trouble — we don’t know what, exactly — at a specially-called meeting, but at the last minute, discussion of the ethics policy was pulled from the agenda. Every indication was that Council was poised not to address the problem of ethics, but optics.
The narrative of municipal embarrassment has taken hold, and the fog of partisan attacks and counter-attacks has concealed the real ethical lapses, including Bokhari’s, on Council.
To halt this narrative, Council will soon take action to “stop the bleeding” — even if concealing the rot of real corruption is the cost of doing so.