Council nixes partnership between city and councilman’s nonprofit

Updated: Jul. 27, 2020 at 11:28 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - On Monday night, Charlotte city council voted against a partnership between the city and a councilman’s nonprofit for a jobs training program during the pandemic.

A majority of city council members ultimately decided that even the appearance of a conflict of interest was enough to avoid the dilemma all together.

City council also agreed to have the Budget and Effectiveness Committee review the city’s code of ethics and ordinances governing conflict of interest to better define an “indirect” benefit and have the process for filing an ethics complaint against a council member more streamlined.

Last week, WBTV reported on an arrangement between the city and Councilman Tariq Bokhari’s non-profit, Carolina Fintech Hub.

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

Private donors would then guarantee $5 million in salaries and jobs to the trainees and to overhead for the 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.

But during Monday night’s meeting several city council members complained that the process wasn’t transparent and they weren’t aware of the arrangement until recently.

“At its core it’s a good program but the process was very flawed,” Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt said.

Economic Development Director Tracy Dodson defended city staff’s process and says they were always trying to be transparent with council members.

City council voted to send the program back to the Workforce Development Committee and have staff look at alternative partners for the program.

A substitute motion by Councilman Ed Driggs to send the program back to staff but allow them to continue considering CFH narrowly failed in a 6-4 vote.

Councilman Malcolm Graham said even if there was no conflict by definition, he said he supported removing CFH from the process for appearance sake.

“I think the job for us tonight is to protect the credibility of the council,” Graham said.

Before he was excused from the vote Councilman Tariq Bokhari pleaded with his colleagues to keep the program.

“You’re going to ultimately agree to limiting those 90 people’s opportunity to succeed,” Bokhari said.

“It’s just too high of a price to pay to punk one occasionally unlikeable colleague.”

Councilwoman Dimple Ajmera, who originally brought the issue to the attention of City Attorney Patrick Baker, denied that her actions were personal.

In response to Ajmera’s questions, City Attorney Patrick Baker released a memo to city council members Sunday stating that there was no violation of state or city ethics rules but that council should vote on the program and Bokhari should excuse himself from the motion.

While Baker concludes that no state laws or local ordinances have been violated, there’s no review of the $5 million in pledged money from private donors.

Ajmera and Councilwoman Renee Johnson questioned why that was not part of the review and gave numerous examples of how that could been seen as an indirect benefit of the partnership with the city.

In an email Bokhari sent to other council members, Bokhari stated that the $5 million would be used for graduated trainees’ salaries and CFH overhead.

“The private sector would ensure the funding for overhead and job placement commitments was achieved and administered,” Bokhari wrote.

Bokhari wrote that the overhead was for “$365k for direct overhead spend (in addition to raising the $4.95M of 2021 job placement salary commitments) to cover curriculum, instructors, laptops etc if we were to recall are the timeline up to 2020 instead of out normally planned 2021 next cohort.”

According to CFH’s 2018 Form 990, Bokhari made $200,000 as president of the non-profit that year. That accounted for roughly one fifth of CFH’s revenue in 2018. In 2018, $75,000 was paid in other salaries and wages.

CFH’s 2017 Form 990 indicates Bokhari was only compensated $33,000.

WBTV has requested CFH’s 2019 Form 990 from Bokhari but has not received it yet.

Councilwoman Victoria Watlington made a motion for the city attorney and council’s Budget and Effectiveness Committee to review the city’s code of ethics and make changes as needed.

Specifically, she requested that a more inclusive definition of “indirect” be provided, that council members be required to bring possible conflicts before the city attorney before council voting on them and for the ethics complaint process to be streamlined.

Baker said that the city’s rules allowed for a third party investigator to be hired but only if a complaint was properly filed through the city clerk’s office. He said he expected that to be done in short order.

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