Maybe Patrick Cannon spoiled us when it comes to spotting municipal corruption in Charlotte.
So egregious was Cannon’s behavior, which resulted in a resignation, federal charges, a guilty plea, and prison time, that we may be tempted to think that anything short of an elected official literally stuffing wads of cash into his pockets doesn’t count as graft. With Cannon as our touchstone, we may be lulled into believing corruption is synonymous with criminality.
We would be wrong.
The Charlotte Ledger reported last week that Mayor Vi Lyles, who recently announced her candidacy for a third term, applied for a membership with Myers Park Country Club this summer and that the club was intending to waive its $95,000 initiation fee for her.
An internal country club website listed Lyles as a potential “honorary” member, according to the Ledger, which cited two club members as its sources.
Fox 46 reporter Emma Withrow confirmed the Ledger‘s reporting and broadcast a screenshot of an internal club web page listing the mayor’s potential honorary membership. (The country club’s public website contains very little information so as “[t]o protect the privacy of our Club and its members.” This desire for secrecy extends to requests for information about the club’s planned arrangement with Lyles: The club told the Ledger it doesn’t comment on membership applications, while Withrow said she was “shooed away” from the club when she showed up to ask questions.)
In the immediate wake of local journalists breaking the story, Lyles avoided media inquiries and sent out taxpayer-funded spokesmen to cover for her.
Although the mayor had applied for membership over the summer, and although her potential membership had progressed through several stages of the application process, Lyles didn’t really want to be a member of the country club, according to Jeremy Mills, a senior communications specialist with the city. (While Mills, as a municipal employee, works for the public, he was tasked with running interference for an elected official caught taking an illicit gift: Corruption breeds corruption.)
As reported by the Ledger last week, Mills explained, “It’s nothing that needs to be worried about. She had kind of forgotten about it, and she wasn’t going to join anyway.”
He further said the matter was “a non-issue” and added that after Lyles consulted with City Attorney Patrick Baker about the waiver of the club’s hefty initiation fee, the mayor decided she didn’t want to be a member. (Pro tip from a licensed, practicing attorney: If you have to consult with a lawyer to discern right from wrong, your moral compass is busted.)
When Fox 46’s Withrow got no answers from Lyles last week, she knocked on the mayor’s front door. “The garage door’s open. There’s a car in the garage, but no answer so far,” she observed from Lyle’s front porch.
Later in her story, Withrow reported, “[Lyle’s] staff did say she has no interest in becoming a member of Myers Park Country Club despite having applied months ago.”
The reporter’s implied skepticism was made more express by Kyle Luebke, a local Republican activist.
“Did she know that she was going to get this comped, and if she wasn’t going to get this comped and didn’t submit an application to get this comped, then why isn’t she just going to pay the $95,000 to become a member like she would have originally planned?”
Lyles can offer no good answers to these questions.
Charlotte’s elected officials are bound by a code of ethics that prohibits them from using their public offices for “personal gain.” The code also expressly prohibits officeholders from accepting gifts worth more than $50. (There’s a list of exemptions to the gift ban, but none applies to Myers Park Country Club waiving its nearly-six-figure initiation fee for the mayor.)
On both of these counts, Lyles violated the code of ethics — or, at the very least, intended to violate it until those intentions became known. (The corrupt deserve no credit for abandoning their schemes simply because they became public before they were consummated.)
It’s here that the ghost of Cannon’s felonious misdeeds may tempt us to judge the current mayor’s actions as harmless because she committed no crime.
But criminality should not, cannot not, and must not be our standard for judging the behavior of those who hold a public trust. We have every right to demand more: Corruption is the use of public office for personal gain, the abandonment of integrity, and dishonest behavior by public figures. It’s not limited by the criminal code.
Democrats, who may be tempted to either defend or ignore Lyles’s wrongdoing, know well that corruption and criminality are not co-extensive. After all, members of their party impeached a former president twice for acts that were not criminal, but were certainly corrupt.
When we look beyond the narrow confines of the criminal law and apply to our mayor the same sort of ethical standard some of us applied to the former president, Lyles’s corruption is clear — notwithstanding her efforts to downplay her misdeeds.
Those efforts continued this week when Lyles agreed to speak to the Ledger.
She first confirmed there were no inaccuracies in the Ledger‘s prior reporting, acknowledging she had applied for a membership to Myers Park Country Club and admitting she intended to take a $95,000 gift from the club — nearly twice the value of the bribes that sent Patrick Cannon to prison. (It’s also about 50% more than Charlotte’s median household income and nearly three times the city’s median individual income.)
The mayor then defended herself by pleading ignorance about the process that would result in her receipt of this windfall. “Well, I’m not a member of a country club, so I don’t really know very much about how it would work,” she told the Ledger.
But the process that was to facilitate her corruption simply doesn’t matter. What matters is what she intended to do, not how she intended to do it.
Asked if she made a mistake pursuing such a substantial gift, Lyles responded:
“I always say … that whenever I take any action, I always ask myself, ‘How could I get better at it? What could I have done differently?’ I certainly think that just like anything else that I do from the successes to the ideas of ‘why did you think of that this way,’ I do. I heard [poet] Amanda Gorman today. She said something in her interview that was like, ‘Make sure that you leave room for mistakes. As long as you’re true to yourself, you can have that and still know that it’s important to continue on.’ I recognize that very much in who I am and know that after consideration, I probably would have said, again, ‘What can I do differently?’ just like you have asked me.”
Nowhere in this argle bargle did Lyles acknowledge error or apologize.
And why would she? The mayor was simply being true to herself!
She even suggested that we may owe her a debt of gratitude for her moral uprightness.
After the Ledger started asking questions, Lyles explained, “I went straight to the city attorney, learned that it would violate our ethics policy and based upon that, I asked my application to be withdrawn, and I am no longer under consideration for membership.”
Translation: If her scheme hadn’t been uncovered by the media, Lyles wouldn’t have spoken to the city’s attorney and would have blithely taken a $95,000 gift offered to her for no other reason than the public office she holds.
The Ledger reported as much when Councilman Tariq Bokhari confirmed for the news outlet that Lyles sought the city attorney’s counsel only after journalists started asking questions.
Left to her own moral devices, our mayor was prepared to stroll into the easy living of casual corruption. Only the intervention of reporters stopped it from happening — and even after being exposed, Lyles still doesn’t get it.
Asked by the Ledger if she could afford to pay a $95,000 initiation fee, the mayor responded, “Well, that’s kind of a personal question about my income.”
But it’s not: There’s nothing personal about corruptly parlaying your public office for private gain.