Charlotte’s city attorney has referred an ethics complaint against Councilman Tariq Bokhari to outside investigators.
The complaint alleges that Bokhari has engaged in a years-long pattern and practice of using his public office to further his private financial and business interests.
This violates the city’s policy prohibiting elected officials from “us[ing] their official position for personal gain,” according to the complaint.
The city’s ethics policy allows anyone to file a complaint against an elected official, but the policy charges City Attorney Patrick Baker with the duty of assessing whether the complaint meets certain requirements such that a referral to outside investigators is warranted.
To meet the policy’s requirements, a complaint must name the official against whom it is being made, identify the provision of the ethics policy the official is accused of violating, and state specific facts that form the basis of the complaint. Generalized allegations are insufficient under the policy to merit an independent, outside investigation.
“I have completed my review of all the information you submitted and have concluded that this ethics complaint provides the required information set forth above to be referred to an independent outside counsel,” Baker wrote in an October 6 letter.
The complaint is being referred to attorneys Jim Coleman, Kim Strach, and Hampton Dellinger.
Throughout his three years as a district representative on City Council, Bokhari has regularly used his public office to promote the so-called fintech industry while simultaneously working as the executive director of Carolina Fintech Hub, which Bokhari has likened to a mini-chamber of commerce for the industry.
The most recently available tax filings show Bokhari made an annual salary of $200,000 leading Carolina Fintech Hub in 2018.
The sweeping ethics complaint against Bokhari, which this author wrote based on publicly available information, was filed in early August.
A couple of weeks later, Baker reached out for additional details regarding the allegations against Bokhari, suggesting Baker did not believe at that time that the complaint met the minimum requirements necessary to send it to outside investigators.
A response to his request for additional information was sent on August 26, arguing that the detailed, 5,500-word complaint alleged sufficiently specific allegations of wrongdoing by Bokhari to clear the hurdle necessary to justify referral to an outside investigator.
Baker has now signaled his agreement by referring the matter for an external investigation.
He did not indicate when the investigation would be completed, but stated the results would be communicated when the review is finished.
Referral of the allegations against Bokhari comes amidst a flurry of ethics complaints against all members of City Council.
Baker previously said that complaints against Bokhari and Councilwoman Dimple Ajmera related to their receipt of campaign contributions would be referred to outside investigators.
He also previously said that a complaint against Councilman James Mitchell accusing him of traveling on the city’s tab for non-city-related work would be referred for external review.
Whether any of the other pending complaints will be referred for outside review has not been publicly announced.
In the wake of the recent spate of ethics complaints, Council is now considering whether to amend its ethics policy.
Baker has previously said that charging him with the duty of acting as a gatekeeper for ethics complaints against Council, which is his direct employer, should be changed.
At the September 15 meeting of the Council’s budget and effectiveness committee, Councilman Ed Driggs, who chairs the committee, agreed that putting Baker in that role is problematic.
Driggs suggested that Baker draft some language for the committee to consider that would allow for an ethics complaint’s initial referral to outside counsel, which would then make recommendations to Council regarding what further steps, if any, should be undertaken in response to the complaint.
“The main idea, though, is to kind of bring back in-house some of the control of this and also give us the opportunity to decide in particular what statement we want to make or what conclusion we want to reach,” Driggs said.
“The key thing is somebody has got to look at the complaint and decide whether or not the council member actually did what they’re alleged to have done, and, if so, whether that action constituted a breach of our rules.”
Councilwoman Renee Johnson said at the committee meeting that she disagrees council members should be reviewing alleged ethics allegations, preferring that work be done by the city attorney, an outside investigator, or a city ethics official.
“I don’t think it would be totally objective for Council to grade or review other council member’s complaints,” she said.
Additionally, Johnson advocated for making it more user-friendly to lodge a complaint.
Committee members also discussed beefing up the conflict-of-interest provisions of the ethics policy.
Scrutiny of Bokhari’s merger of his private interests with his public duties began when he advocated earlier this year for Carolina Fintech Hub to receive $1.5 million of the city’s COVID-19 relief money to fund a jobs-training program.
Plans for the city to give Carolina Fintech Hub the money were abandoned after questions arose about Bokhari’s conflict of interest, which council members found objectionable but that fell outside the prohibitions of the city’s conflict-of-interest policy.
The complaint against Bokhari that has now been referred for an independent investigation sweeps more broadly than that single episode, painting a picture of a years-long conflict of interest that continues to this day — to Bokhari’s significant financial benefit.