Patrick Cannon arrest raises questions about Charlotte’s ethics policy

Charlotte has a more vaguely written ethics code for office-holders than Mecklenburg County, but experts say such policies do little to prevent crimes.

When former Mayor Patrick Cannon was arrested earlier this week, federal agents said Cannon took $48,000 in cash and gifts – exchanges the city’s code of ethics does not explicitly prohibit.

The five-page code, last updated in 2010, admonishes the mayor and council members to remain “incorruptible, self-governing and unaffected by improper influence.”

“Their official actions should be above reproach and they should not use their official position for personal gain,” it adds.

It’s unclear how the city judges that standard, which does not mention gifts. City Attorney Robert Hagemann, who is charged with investigating violations of the policy, could not be reached Friday.

Mecklenburg County commissioners, in contrast, draw a specific line that’s not supposed to be crossed. The code says county officials can’t accept gifts worth more than $100 a year.

Raleigh City Council members aren’t supposed to take gifts of more than $50 in value.

Experts say such standards set a tone for how elected officials are expected to behave.

“Ethics policies can be very useful in helping staff and elected officials navigate the gray areas and help them make wise decisions that align with the organization’s values,” said Martha Perego, director of ethics at the International City/County Management Association.

“They are not much of a deterrent, however, when someone decides to act illegally, i.e., ask for and accept bribes,” Perego said by email. “Enron had a great ethics policy, but in the end, it didn’t do much to prevent unethical conduct from happening.”

Local governing boards have little recourse when elected officials go astray, said Frayda Bluestein, an expert in local government law at the UNC School of Government in Chapel Hill.

“Boards don’t have any ability to sanction their colleagues except by censure,” Bluestein said. State and federal law that makes it a crime for public officials to accept gifts and favors, she said, is “the only thing that has teeth.”

Cannon, if convicted, faces up to 50 years in prison and $1.5 million in fines.

Mecklenburg County officials were stung in 1998 when former elections director Bill Culp was convicted of taking bribes and kickbacks in a voting-machines scandal. Culp served 14 months in federal prison.

When Culp went to prison, said longtime commissioner Bill James, the county created an Audit Review Committee at James’ suggestion. The committee oversees financial reporting, audits and compliance with laws, regulations and the ethics code.

The committee is composed of four commissioners, from both political parties, and a fifth appointed member. Reports go directly to the committee instead of managers.

“We tried to learn our lessons and be as transparent as we could be so that people like (the media) and the public can’t say we were trying to hide something,” James said. “I just see it as an opportunity for (the city) to reflect perhaps on a better way to do things.”

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