Dallas needs more oversight, tighter ethics, review finds

Dallas needs a department solely dedicated to investigating the city’s misconduct complaints to ensure they are properly handled, according to a report released Monday calling for ethical reforms.

The city should establish an office of the inspector general and appoint a licensed lawyer in the titular role who would find, investigate and adjudicate on suspected cases of fraud, waste, abuse, campaign finance violations and ‘other ethical faults, according to the report. This decision would replace the current process, where complaints are channeled through different channels and are not independently investigated.

The suggestion was the main recommendation of an 18-page report released by the Dallas Ethics Reform Task Force, which has been ordered by Mayor Eric Johnson since 2019 to review the city’s code of ethics. and find ways to strengthen rules, oversight and complaints. to treat. The six-person task force is chaired by Tim Powers, a lawyer who is also chairman of the city’s ethics advisory board.

The group also includes two other attorneys, including one who is a director of Dallas ISD; two law professors, including a former lawyer from the city of Dallas, and a rabbi from Temple Emanu-El in North Dallas.

The report also recommends making the Dallas Code of Ethics clearer and easier to understand; updating and increasing the training and testing of city employees and elected officials on the rules; and publish campaign donations and expenses, lobbying contributions and gifts; and regularly report information online in one place for the public to review and analyze.

“The ethics reform effort is specifically aimed at fostering a culture in which there is no tolerance for unethical behavior, charges or convictions of city officials or city employees,” indicates the report.

[Read the report]

Johnson, at a press conference Monday, called the report’s 25 recommendations “bold and realistic” and said reforming the Dallas code of ethics should be a top priority for city council.

“We have seen too many clear examples of corruption that have undermined our efforts to build a safer and stronger city,” he said. “We have heard far too many questions about the way business is done here in the city without being able to provide the public with clear answers. “

Powers said the task force looked at ethical codes and practices in Dallas and about 15 other cities of similar size as part of their report. He noted that Houston, Philadelphia and other major cities have inspector general offices and one could be established in Dallas.

“Put simply, it’s about preventing corruption and conflict before it happens,” Powers said.

Johnson said the report would be forwarded to the council’s General Investigation and Ethics Committee for review and that he hoped the group would send it to the entire city council to discuss how to implement the recommendations “as soon as possible”.

Board member Cara Mendelsohn, chair of the committee, said the group would be briefed on the report before the end of the year.

Ethics complaints can currently be lodged with the municipal auditor’s office over the phone or at the municipal secretary’s office, but they are assessed in different ways.

The city secretary can refer complaints to the ethics advisory commission for review, but the city auditor does not have to and can decide whether the code of ethics has been violated without the group intervening.

In addition, the municipal secretary, municipal auditor and the ethics advisory commission do not have the power to independently investigate complaints. The commission, according to the report, makes decisions in cases that become hearings “based on little (if any) more than the face of the complaint.”

According to the report, an inspector general’s office should be based in the city attorney’s office, be the sole recipient of ethics complaints from any medium, be allowed to independently investigate complaints and have power. subpoena and have the ability to keep reviews confidential and protect whistleblowers from retaliation.

The inspector general should be appointed by the mayor and approved by the council and should have “sufficient staff”. After investigating the legitimate complaints, the office should produce a report and recommendations as well as forward the complaints to the ethics advisory commission, human resources, prosecutor’s office or other appropriate department for resolution, depending on the government. report. The Inspector General’s opinions should also be made available to the public for review, and proposed case settlements should be submitted to the Ethics Advisory Board for final approval.

The report also contains several other recommendations, including testing council members and members of council and commissions on their understanding of the city’s code of ethics, creating a clear standard for determining whether a city official or employee has conflicts of interest, converting paper gift-related declaration forms to an online system with a searchable public database, setting a minimum age of 18 for campaign donors to avoid money be disbursed on behalf of children and increase the frequency with which campaign funding must be reported.

Johnson’s campaign for mayor in 2019 included pledges to rewrite the city’s code of ethics, hold city officials to account, and fix Dallas’ reputation for corruption at City Hall.

Johnson was sworn in months after former Dallas council member Carolyn Davis admitted in federal court to accepting more than $ 40,000 in bribes from a real estate developer and former mayor of City, Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway, was sentenced to about four and a half years in prison after his guilty plea related to accepting about $ 450,000 in bribes.

Davis and her daughter died the same year after being struck by a drunk driver. Caraway saw his prison term reduced by five months in July.

Ruel Hamilton, the promoter involved in the two cases, was convicted, also in July, of bribing former council members and is expected to be sentenced in November. He faces up to 25 years in federal prison.

“For our government to function effectively, we must work to restore the confidence that some of those who came before us have eroded through neglect and selfishness,” Johnson said Monday. our only interest.

Since Johnson came to power, two council members have been found guilty of violating the city’s code of ethics by the city’s advisory commission. Council member Casey Thomas in 2019 was determined not to report getting more than $ 1,600 in free event tickets from VisitDallas, a non-profit organization hired by the city to market Dallas.

In August, the Ethics Advisory Board found that board member Adam Bazaldua had personally attacked a resident on Facebook saying she looked “dumb.” He was represented by Philip Kingston, a former council member who in 2017 was tried for breaking city ethics rules for filming a campaign ad in his town hall office.

The ethics commission had recommended a “warning letter” against Bazaldua, but the city council voted earlier this month not to discipline Bazaldua for the ethics violation.