Council suggests minor tweaks to ethics policy to “stop the bleeding”

Updated: Aug. 18, 2020 at 6:43 PM EDT
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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Charlotte council members talked about making changes to their ethics policy as a fourth complaint was filed Monday night and some councilmembers say it is starting to look like a weaponized form of politics.

Some councilmembers worry that that the flurry of complaints could overshadow legitimate ethics concerns filed against council members.

During a council Budget and Effectiveness Committee meeting the elephant in the room was at the top of the agenda.

Recent concerns about the council’s ethics policy have catapulted the issue into the limelight.

“I think what we need to do now is stop the bleeding of the frivolous complaints that are coming in before council members now,” Councilman Malcolm Graham said.

Three separate council members have ethics complaints filed against them that are being referred to an independent investigator.

Another complaint was filed Monday night against Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt alleging that she’s using her position for monetary gain and to solicit campaign contributions.

In response, Eiselt told WBTV the complaint is frivolous and that political contributions from developers are not illegal unless there’s a quid pro quo.

She also gave two examples in which she voted against projects that were brought forward by people who donated to her campaign.

During the committee meeting she expressed frustration that this complaint could easily lead to an investigation.

“If that’s the way we want to go then I will push to make sure every council member who’s ever taken a donation is investigated,” Eaiselt said.

Committee Chair Ed Driggs proposed a small change today and said bigger changes need to be discussed at their next meeting.

The committee agreed that complaints should be forwarded to independent counsel for a review before deciding if a formal investigation is necessary, and in so doing avoid the investigation moniker.

It’s not clear yet whether that will retroactively impact the complaints already filed against council members.

“This could get farcical,” Driggs said. “This could become embarrassing to all of us as the public watches it’s city government devolve.”

The entire city council will vote on this proposed change at their next meeting in September. We do not know yet if the knew complaint filed against Eiselt will be referred to an independent investigator.

The flurry of complaints came after questions were raised about a possible conflict of interest between the City of Charlotte and Councilman 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 in CARES Act funds 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.

The city attorney ultimately decided that no conflict of interest existed in the program but councilmembers voted against moving forward on the project.

Several ethics complaints were filed against Bokhari but up until early this week, none of them met the criteria for an independent review.

Two weeks later, NCGOP filed ethics complaints against Ajmera and Mitchell.

NCGOP filed a complaint against Councilwoman Dimple Ajmera alleging that she “has used her official position, particularly in rezoning cases, to directly engage with those from the real estate community who have a business in front of the council to solicit campaign contributions.”

NC GOP listed nine different occasions in which Ajmera received political contributions from developers or property owners around the time that council approved zoning decisions affecting them.

In a statement given to WBTV, Monday Ajmera wrote “The idea that real estate industry contributions that represent less than 10 percent of my total fundraising in the last election determines where I stand is absurd. My voting record has consistently reflected my value of putting Charlotteans first.”

Ajmera referenced an article from the Charlotte Ledger in 2019 which shows she raised among the fewest dollars from real estate sources compared to her council colleagues.

The complaint against Mitchell focuses on a taxpayer-funded trip to Detroit the councilman took in 2018 and first reported by WBTV.

WBTV’s investigation found that Mitchell went to Detroit in November 2018 on a taxpayer-funded trip that cost $1,421.26, records show.

On his reimbursement form, Mitchell listed the purpose of the trip as “return for site of Detroit Sports Facility.” The Detroit Lions hosted the Carolina Panthers that weekend in a regular-season game.

Emails obtained through the records request show that Mitchell was communicating with Carolina Panthers President Tom Glick about visiting Detroit to tour some of its sports facilities.

Mitchell forwarded the email to high-level employees at the company Barton Malow.

Barton Malow is a nationwide contractor that has completed numerous sports facility construction projects including Little Caesars Arena in Detroit.

They also were the contractor for the soccer stadium for Orlando City FC and fought to build the new soccer stadium in Nashville.

A press release from Barton Mallow shows Mitchell was hired at the construction firm in 2014 but he now works at the construction company JE Dunn.

Mitchell has not responded to WBTV’s request for comment.

The complaint filed by the NCGOP states “Mitchell’s current employer (JE Dunn) has several references to strong business partnerships with Barton Mallow, including joint ventures in jobsite accident technology and data sharing agreements.”

The complaint filed against Councilman Bokhari is a carbon-copy of the complaint filed against Ajmera, alleging that he received campaign contributions from developers.

The complaint was filed by Charlotte attorney Brandon Forbes.

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