Council’s practice of investigating itself after ethics complaints could end soon

Mayor Bartlett is pushing to have the change made soon, but at least one city councilor questions why the outgoing mayor is making it an issue now.

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Tulsa City Councilor Phil Lakin, right, and Mayor Dewey Bartlett, right.
Outgoing Mayor Dewey Bartlett, right, says he would like the City Council to adopt a proposed change to the ethics code that would end the practice of the City Council investigating itself when ethics complaints are filed against councilors. Councilor Phil Lakin, left, says the change has been in the works for months, and the mayor knows it. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

Mayor Dewey Bartlett says he plans to push for a change to the city ethics code that would put an end to city councilors’ investigating themselves when ethics complaints are filed against them.

“I think there is one thing I haven’t heard anyone say would be a bad idea, and that would be to change that one portion of it (the ethics code) that gives the City Council sole responsibility of investigating itself,” Bartlett said.

Any system in which officials investigate themselves is bound to create distrust, he said.

“The perception is the investigation would not be the full-blown, unbiased investigation. Investigating yourself, you’re going to give yourself the benefit of the doubt, or at least the perception is that way.”

Indeed, the proposed change appears to have widespread support among councilors. It  was included in a draft of an amended ethics code presented to councilors early this year by a working group charged with recommending changes to the code.

Councilor Phil Lakin, a member of the working group, said he was surprised by the mayor’s sudden interest in the issue. He noted that members of Bartlett’s staff have been part of the working group since it commenced in mid-2015.

“He’s had seven years to be worried about this and he’s worried about it the last few minutes of his mayorship, which I think is pretty odd timing,” Lakin said.

Bartlett, who leaves office Dec. 5, said he knows the ethics code discussion has been going on for some time, but he would like to see the issue regarding council investigations addressed soon, rather than waiting for the entire code revision to be considered.

“To me it is just a good opportunity. Get it done now,” Bartlett said. “I’ll be gone. There shouldn’t be any pointing fingers at me.”

Lakin made no promises regarding Bartlett’s request, but he did say that the working group met Tuesday and plans to meet again Nov. 18 to discuss its latest revisions.

The proposed ethics code changes were discussed in a public City Council committee meeting a few months ago. Since then, the working group has been trying to address concerns raised by the City Attorney’s Office about the document.

According to Lakin, getting the council out of the business of investigating itself was one of the primary goals of the group when it began its work.

“The other piece was, we want to remove as much gray area in these clauses and paragraphs as we possibly can,” he said. “We’ll have an ethics situation arise and nobody can decide — not legal, not the council.

“Nobody can read that and go, ‘Oh, well, it’s very clear that I must recuse myself on this.’ ”

The ethics code also applies to appointees of authorities, boards and commissions. Lakin said drawing a “bright red line” in the ordinance that distinguishes right from wrong is especially important for those volunteers who choose to serve the city.

“If they can’t understand whether or not they are getting ready to violate the ethics code, then we have got a problem,” Lakin said.

Under the existing city ordinance, once an ethics complaint against a councilor is received, the City Council administrator, the council chair and the vice-chair determine whether to investigate it.

If any one of the three believe the complaint warrants additional investigation, the council administrator will continue the investigation and the City Council will call an executive session to discuss the complaint with the entire council. The council may then vote to take action, including imposing penalties established under the City Charter.

Historically, the chairman and vice chairman of the council have been from different parties, in part to provide a check and balance against politically motivated ethics complaint investigations.

Still, councilors acknowledge the process is problematic at best.

“There needs to be checks and balances,” said Councilor Jack Henderson. “No one entity should be exempt from being checked. I also think that the council would feel better about it (with a new process) — it takes the heat off of them.”

Ten ethics complaints have been filed against city councilors since 2012, according to records provided to The Frontier by the City Council. One complaint has been filed against City Councilor Blake Ewing, four against Councilor and Mayor-Elect G.T. Bynum, and five against Lakin.

In every instance, the complaints were found to be unsubstantiated or councilors were found to have acted properly.

All of the complaints against Lakin were related to a proposed zoning change requested by QuikTrip Corp. for the expansion of its store at the corner of 11th Street and Utica Avenue. The complaints claim that Lakin should have recused himself from the case because a QuikTrip official was on the board of directors of Lakin’s employer, the Tulsa Community Foundation.

The council’s investigation found that Lakin had not violated the ethics code because the code does not define a relationship such as the one between the QuikTrip official and Lakin as constituting a conflict of interest. Lakin had conferred with the City Attorney’s Office and received approval to be part of the QuikTrip case before he decided to do so.

Three of the five complaints against Lakin were anonymous and the other two came from the same person.

The complaints against Bynum pertain to allegations he had conflicts of interest when casting votes as a councilor because either he had family ties to parties affected by his votes or because of his job as a lobbyist/consultant for Capitol Ventures Government Services. He left the company after being elected mayor June 28.

Bynum was also named in an anonymous complaint against him and Bartlett for having dinner at the home of Tulsa Regional Chamber President and CEO Mike Neal.

Two of the four complaints filed against Bynum came from anonymous sources. The others came from candidates he was running against for City Council.

Before any complaints had been filed, Bynum requested and received an opinion from the Ethics Advisory Committee regarding how to proceed should a potential conflict of interest arise. When ethics complaints were filed against Bynum, the council used the Ethics Advisory Committee’s opinion to help determine whether he had complied with the ethics code.

The lone complaint filed against Ewing, in 2013, came from an anonymous source who accused him of misusing his authority as a city councilor and not following city ordinances.

The City Council is the only elected body in city government that investigates itself. Complaints against the mayor are investigated by the city auditor; complaints against the auditor are investigated by the City Council; and complaints against employees go to the appropriate department, which is assisted in its investigation by the Human Resources department.

The latest proposed revision to the ethics code would dissolve the Ethics Advisory Board and replace it with a more powerful Ethics Commission. The Ethics Commission would have the sole authority to determine whether a complaint warrants investigation. If so, the investigation would be done by the Auditor’s Office.

The Auditor’s Office would then submit its findings to the seven-member Ethics Commission, whose members would be appointed by the mayor with city council approval. The commission would render a final decision on whether there had been an ethics code violation. It would be up to the appropriate supervisor to determine whether and what disciplinary action should be taken.

If a city councilor were found to be in violation of the ethics code, it would be up to his or her fellow councilors to determine what sanctions, if any, to impose. The only sanctions allowed under the city Charter for councilors found to be in violation of the ethics code are fines.

The Charter does not allow for any sanctions to be imposed on the city auditor or the mayor should they be found to be in violation of the ethics code.

Ethics complaints filed against Ethics Commission members would be investigated by the city auditor, with the City Council rendering the final decision as to whether an ethics code violation had occurred.

Complaints filed against the city auditor, or the auditor’s employees, would be investigated by the City Council, which would also determine whether an ethics code violation had occurred.

Other proposed changes to the ethics code include:

  • Requiring that all ethics complaints be considered by the Ethics Commission be made in writing and signed under oath;
  •  Clarifying potential conflicts of interest by providing specific dollar amounts and other definitions regarding who can receive gifts, and under what circumstances those gives can be received;
  •  Placing in abeyance any ethics complaints filed against elected officials or individuals running for office between the date candidates file for office and the date the election is certified.

Lakin said the proposed ethics code revision would not eliminate the opportunity for people to make anonymous complaints. Those would still be taken on the city’s hotline, at the City Clerk’s Office or in the Human Resources department.

The two-pronged approach is intended to ensure that the Ethics Commission hears serious complaints related to alleged violations of the ethics code while keeping other avenues open to receive complaints regarding alleged violations of law or city personnel policies.

“We wanted to continue to allow that (anonymous process) because obviously we need to know if those activities are taking place by any person — the elected official or the general civil service employee,” Lakin said.

Other members of the working group include: Council Policy Analyst Jack Blair; Council Administrator Drew Rees; Ethics Advisory Committee members Mike Keester, Whitney Mauldin and Cheryl Baber; Mayor’s Chief of Staff Jarred Brejcha; and Assistant City Attorney Bob Edmiston.

Other city councilors have attended meetings, as have City Manager Jim Twombly and Human Resources Director Erica-Felix Warwick.

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