Independent investigators have scolded Charlotte City Councilman Tariq Bokhari for his actions trying to steer municipal COVID relief money to a program to be run by a non-profit he oversees, but they failed entirely to engage a broader ethics complaint that documented Bokhari’s years-long entanglement of his public duties with his private financial interests in the so-called fintech industry.
The report by attorneys James E. Coleman, Jr. of Duke University School of Law, Kimberly Westbrook Strach with SRS Consulting Services, LLC, and Hampton Dellinger of Law Offices of Hampton Dellinger, was completed on December 3, 2020, but released only this week.
The trio was engaged by City Attorney Patrick Baker in October 2020 following a flurry of ethics complaints against various council members in the summer and fall of 2020.
“Among all of the complaints, we were concerned most about allegations against Council member Bokhari and Mayor pro tem [Julie] Eiselt,” the investigators wrote.
As to Bokhari, investigators limited their review “to the complaints regarding Mr. Bokhari’s conduct during the City’s consideration of responses to the economic challenges caused by COVID-19.”
In the summer of 2020, Bokhari sought to steer $1.5 million in COVID relief money to a program to be run by Carolina Fintech Hub (CFH), a non-profit that advocates for the fintech industry and that pays Bokhari a six-figure salary to run.
Council ultimately scrapped the plan after Bokhari’s conflict of interest came to light.
Complaints filed by members of the public alleged Bokhari violated the city’s ethics policy by attempting to steer public dollars to a CFH-related program.
The ethics investigators found Bokhari “acted with a well-meaning desire to help jump start the City’s economic response [to the pandemic].” They added, “In doing so, however, he overlooked the importance of transparency, allowing others to speculate about his motives.”
Investigators concluded Bokhari should have made clear that his non-profit would not itself receive any of the public dollars and that CFH would only participate “after an equitable and transparent process in which he played no role.”
They further concluded that Bokhari should have sought the counsel of the city attorney’s office when city staff approached him about CFH’s involvement in the relief program. His failure to do so violated the city’s ethics policy.
No further action or investigation is warranted as to this matter, according to investigators, because the issue has been widely reported on in the local media, and Council has already expressed its view by voting to abandon the proposed project.
While investigators concluded Bokhari ran afoul of the ethics policy as to the discrete program involving COVID relief money, they failed entirely to engage another ethics complaint that accused Bokhari of a years-long pattern and practice of merging his public office with his private interests.
That complaint outlined how, since first running for public office roughly four years ago and continuing throughout his time in office, Bokhari has used his platform as a candidate for public office and an elected public official to advocate for the fintech industry — the very same work for which he is paid $200,000 a year to run CFH, one of the industry’s local advocacy groups.
On its face, the investigators’ report disclaims any effort to investigate this pattern of corruption, expressly stating their investigation was limited to “the complaints regarding Mr. Bokhari’s conduct during the City’s consideration of responses to the economic challenges caused by COVID-19.”
No explanation is offered as to why investigators failed to address Bokhari’s long-standing pattern of corruption, even though the complaint detailing such corruption was referred to them for review.
It thus will be left to city’s other elected officials and, ultimately, the people themselves to decide if it’s appropriate and acceptable for an elected official to use his perch on City Council to advance the interests of an industry he is handsomely paid to lead in the private sector.
As for Eiselt, investigators looked into a complaint alleging disrespectful behavior by her during a May 2019 meeting with UNC-Charlotte student Cade Lee and Reverend Corine Mack, chairwoman of the Charlotte NAACP.
Eiselt, who denied being disrespectful, should have expressed regret for any misunderstanding, according to investigators.
Investigators found baseless other complaints related to allegations of quid pro quo arrangements arising from developers giving money to council members in proximity to votes on matters of interest to the developers, as well as complaints about former Council James Mitchell traveling on the city’s dime for reasons related to his private employment and the city’s lackadaisical approach to filling public records requests and creating more economic opportunity.
The report concludes all of these matters are of great importance, but none warranted an ethics investigation.
The report includes several recommendations for the city to consider, including beefing up the annual financial disclosure forms for elected officials to include sources of income and posting the completed forms online.
Investigators also recommended the city work with the General Assembly to adopt limits to developers’ ability to make donations to elected officials while they have matters pending before the city.