Outside ethics review clears Charlotte council members, recommends improvements

Council cleared of wrongdoing in ethics complaints

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (WBTV) - Charlotte city councilmembers have been cleared of any wrongdoing after a flurry of ethics complaints were filed against them in 2020, according to a copy of the findings from three independent investigators obtained by WBTV.

The findings were sent to council members Friday.

Although the findings clear any councilmember of direct violations of the city’s ethics guidelines, the review made several recommendations, many of which have been the center of a years-long WBTV investigation into city council ethics.

The review of the complaints was conducted by attorneys James Coleman, Jr., Kim Strach and Hampton Dellinger. Strach is the former Executive Director of the North Carolina State Board of Elections.

The issue of ethics on Charlotte City Council had not been a topic of concern for years, until several WBTV Investigations raised questions about potential conflicts of interest with councilmembers, including one that questioned a proposed partnership between the city and a nonprofit run by Councilman Tariq Bokhari, Carolina Fintech Hub.

The partnership was voted down after stories from WBTV and elsewhere prompted additional scrutiny of the proposed arrangement.

An outbreak of ethics complaints against various councilmembers soon followed. A total of 14 complaints were filed against the Mayor and every single councilmember.

The attorneys reached five conclusions regarding complaints and decided that no further action was needed against any councilmember.

With regards to the proposed partnership between the city and Bokhari’s nonprofit, the review found that the arrangement would have given the appearance of a conflict of interest, even though no money would have changed hands between the city and the nonprofit.

“Whether or not such assurances were legally required, the Ethics Code demanded as much to avoid even the appearance of self-interest on Mr. Bokhari’s part,” the review said

Part of the review’s recommendation was to require city councilmembers to “seek the advice of the City Attorney and consider publicly disclosing the facts of the situation.”

Recently, Charlotte City Council approved ethics reforms that would mandate councilmembers pre-emptively discuss potential conflicts of interest with the City Attorney.

Bokhari responded to the review’s findings in a statement.

“The results ended up being just what I expected – everything that was done was above board. Now that these distractions are in the rear-view mirror, I’m hopeful we can all get back to helping those in need.”

Another complaint was filed against former Charlotte City Councilman James “Smuggie” Mitchell based on several WBTV Investigations raising questions about taxpayer funded trips the councilmember to took Detroit with members of the Carolina Panthers organization.

Outside counsel determined “Mr. Mitchel appears generally to be careful in separating his public and private sector activities.”

However, the review did make several recommendations including encouraging him to be mindful of the separation in his written communications and that he should quickly and publicly disclose the facts of any potential conflict of interest.

Mitchell did not respond to a request for comment for this story on Monday. He recently resigned his position on council to take a job at the construction firm RJ Leeper, which would have posed a conflict of interest.

The review also examined a complaint against Mayor Pro Tem Julie Eiselt, filed by local NAACP President Rev. Corrine Mack. The review found that Mack and former Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners candidate Cade Lee were consistent in saying that Eiselt’s conduct toward Mack during a meeting was disrespectful, but Eiselt denied their characterization of the meeting.

The review stated that an appropriate response from Eiselt would have been to express any regrets for a misunderstanding, although there was no definitive conclusion as to what took place in the meeting.

Eiselt did not provide a comment for WBTV’s story.

There were also complaints filed against councilmembers Dimple Ajmera, Larken Egleston, Bokhari and Eiselt regarding campaign contributions. However, the review did not “find any evidence of a quid pro quo or similarly prohibited conduct.”

Based on the review, the outside counsel did provide several recommendations, some of which WBTV has reported on before.

On the issue of campaign contributions, the review advised “the Mayor and City Council to work with the legislature to consider a limitation on donors with rezoning matters pending before the Council.”

The review also made several references to councilmembers Statements of Economic Interest, which WBTV has reported on extensively.

“First, it should go without saying that City Council Members should fill out their disclosure forms completely and accurately then file them timely,” the review stated

A WBTV Investigation found multiple instances in which councilmembers were not filing those forms on time or at all.

The review also recommended making those forms available online to the public and that the form should “require disclosure of each City official’s non-governmental employer and any entity providing an official with $5,000 or more of income in a given year.”

The review also recommended that each Statement of Economic Interest form be reviewed by the City Attorney’s Office, the UNC School of Government or another ethics advisor on an annual basis to help provide guidance on potential conflicts of interest.

Council’s Budget and Effectiveness Committee had previously discussed making changes to the Statement of Economic Interest forms, but those changes were not voted on by the full council during last Monday’s agenda item on ethics policy reform.

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