Potential contract between councilman’s nonprofit and City of Charlotte raises questions about conflict of interest

Updated: Jul. 22, 2020 at 6:35 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - A potential partnership between a Charlotte councilman’s nonprofit and the city has other council members questioning whether there’s a conflict of interest.

The dispute centers around Carolina Fintech Hub (CFH) and its president, Councilman Tariq Bokhari.

As part of a program to bring people back to work after the pandemic, the City of Charlotte would grant $1.5 million as a stipend to people being trained by CFH.

Private donors, mostly banks, would then guarantee $5 million in salaries and overhead to CFH for the training program.

The CFH training would guarantee training and employment for 90 people and targets people who lost their job during the pandemic.

During a task force meeting in which Councilwoman Dimple Ajmera and Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt asked questions about the arrangement, Bokhari said that no city money would be directly going to CFH.

“Let me just make sure you’re crystal clear on something. The Carolina Fintech Hub and the CELC (Charlotte Executive Leadership Council) is receiving zero dollars of city money. Zero,” Bokhari said.

But Ajmera still had questions about the relationship between the city and CFH, how it came about and why it wasn’t disclosed to council members earlier.

“This is more about transparency, accountability, public trust and good stewardship of our public dollars,” Ajmera said.

Similarly, Eiselt said during the task force meeting that she wanted to make sure the arrangement was above-board.

“We need this whole thing explained to us,” Eiselt said. “This has got to be spelled out and it’s got to show how we’re increasing capacity for more people to participate, not replacing revenue for a program that would have happened anyway.”

Also on the task force was Malcomb Coley, from Ernst & Young, who had similar questions about where the dollars were going.

“Where is the rest of this going,” Coley asked. “What’s the total budget and where is it going?”

Coley mentioned that his organization had previously donated to CFH.

According to a city spokesperson there is no official contract with CFH and no money has changed hands.

When asked whether any issues of conflict of interest were ever deliberated, the spokesperson reiterated that no city or CARES Act money was going directly to CFH.

At question is whether any state or local rules governing elected officials were potentially violated.

Charlotte’s code of ordinances states “It shall be unlawful for the Mayor or any member of the Council, or other officer or employee of the City, directly or indirectly, to become an independent contractor for work done by the City, or to become directly or indirectly financially interested in, or receive profits from, any purchase by the City.”

Similarly the UNC School of Government, which new Charlotte city council members are supposed to attend, provided WBTV with a power point presentation stating that “if you’re involved at any point in the contracting process, you’re involved in “making or administering” the contract.

City Attorney Patrick Baker told WBTV that some council members have asked him to investigate the issue.

He said his review of the subject usually breaks down into three categories – there’s no conflict of interest, there’s no conflict of interest but it should be disclosed, there’s a conflict of interest and the council member should be recused.

Baker also said he would be speaking with city staff about how the arrangement with CFH came about.

City council had previously approved CARES Act dollars to be spent for economic recovery programs.

During the task force meeting city staff member Emily Cantrell said that there was no more approval needed from city council.

“There currently is no ask to council as this is a strategy you have approved already and we are in the process of executing,” Cantrell said.

In an email to other city council members Bokhari wrote that City Manager Marcus Jones asked him specifically to design the city’s economic recovery plan.

Bokhari also stressed that CFH was not intended to be a vendor but instead part of a public/private partnership similar to other agreements like the one with Lending Tree.

Bokhari declined to do an on-camera interview with WBTV but in an email statement claimed that this was retribution from Ajmera because of previous comments he had made.

“It’s a sad moment when a colleague (Ajmera) would retaliate in attempts to politically hurt someone because he had spoken out in defense of the police the night before,” Bokhari wrote.

Ajmera denies this ha anything to do with a previous dispute over the police and says, like many of her council colleagues, she supports CMPD.

“It’s tragic they would be willing to sacrifice those in need of recovery help by attacking an innovative public/private partnership that doesn’t have a single taxpayer penny going anywhere other than in the pockets of individuals in need, and had been approved over a month ago. I guess it’s just another sign of the times we are in,” Bokhari wrote.

Bokhari also told WBTV that the city dollars were important to expanding the program and providing more training to more people.

He said might pull out of the relationship and only use private sector dollars because of the ongoing dispute.

In an email shared with WBTV, several council members including Ajmera and Victoria Watlington said they wanted the subject ethics and conflict of interest brought up at Monday night’s council meeting while Eiselt and Ed Driggs said they would like to get information about the issue before the meeting.

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