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Mayor Tom Leppert Needs to Walk the Ethics Reform Talk

Why has Mayor Leppert remained silent about former DART board Chairwoman Lynn Flint Shaw's questionable campaign finance reports?
Mark Graham

In this world anybody can propose ethics reform. Jeffrey Dahmer can propose ethics reform. I can propose ethics reform. And everybody supports it. Duh. The big stop-the-presses headline for me will be the day somebody comes out publicly against ethics.

Being for it is easy. The hard part is doing it, especially when pain and cost are involved.

At the end of last year, Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert proposed a series of City Hall ethics reforms. He was joined by two city council members.

Leppert's ethics proposals drew quick praise from the editorial page of The Dallas Morning News. "Corruption festers in dark political corners," the News intoned on January 2. "It's past time to shine some light there."

OK. Let's shine.

Leppert's proposals included a number of suggestions for improving the city's ethics code on issues of campaign finance reform. He wants stricter rules governing campaign contributions from people who have business with the city, for example. He also talked about digital filing of campaign contributions, which is a way to make campaign reporting more transparent.

Here is what troubles me. A month ago in Unfair Park, the Dallas Observer blog, I reported that I had found a $17,000 discrepancy in the city council campaign finance reports of Lynn Flint Shaw, who ran for City Council District 5 last year but dropped out of the race before the election. After it was on Unfair Park, the same issue found its way into the News' stories and editorials.

Shaw is very close to the mayor. She is part of a small group of black leaders who call themselves "The Inner Circle" because of their access to the mayor. Leppert helped engineer her ascent to chair of the DART board, a position she recently resigned under a cloud.

Until January 30, Shaw also was chairwoman of "Friends of Tom Leppert"—the official fund-raising group that raises money to pay Leppert's political consultants, a position she resigned soon after leaving the DART board. She was chair in spite of an existing city ethics rule that says a person appointed by the city council to any official body, in or outside of city government, cannot be treasurer of a political committee.

Leppert has in hand a city attorney's opinion saying that "Friends of Tom Leppert," which pays tens of thousands of dollars a month to his political advisors, is not a campaign finance committee and therefore is not political. His chief of staff, Chris Heinbaugh told me that Shaw's tenure as treasurer did not violate the city's ethics code, according to city attorney Tom Perkins.

By my reading, the city ethics code just says "political committee." It doesn't say anything about campaign finance. But there you have it.

What troubles me more is that Leppert has been silent on the matter of Shaw's campaign finance reports, at a time when the mayor has been very closely involved in political negotiations having everything to do with Shaw. For weeks I have been receiving reports from council members and others who told me they took calls and contacts from the mayor dealing with the fallout from Shaw's problems. Leppert, according to multiple sources who spoke to me anonymously, wanted to name Shaw's replacement to the DART board but met with opposition from some council members.

The other person immediately involved in these behind-the-scenes negotiations is Michael Sorrell, the lawyer who was supposed to have received the apparently missing money in Shaw's campaign finance reports. Sorrell, a member of the DFW Airport board of directors, is up for reappointment, a goal he will have trouble attaining without the mayor's help.

Chris Heinbaugh, Leppert's chief of staff, did not dispute my assertion that Leppert has been actively involved in the talks surrounding Shaw's open seat on the DART board and Sorrell's seat on the airport board.

"I don't know anyone here who hasn't been talking about both those," Heinbaugh said.

"They're both clearly very important seats... There has been a lot of discussion on both counts."

Let me be plain about what I'm saying. The mayor has at least two possible motivations for remaining silent on the matter of Shaw's missing campaign money. The first is that he's trying to arrange a graceful exit for Shaw, his "Inner Circle" friend. The second is that he is involved in negotiations over Sorrell's tenure on the DFW Airport Board.

There is a reason why silence on the campaign money question is especially golden, if you are Lynn Flint Shaw. If no one brings it up—in particular, if no one makes an official complaint about it—then the $17,000 in missing money probably fades off harmlessly into the fog of memory. Otherwise it could be a felony.

In five reports filed over a 13-month period, Shaw's sworn reports say that she paid Sorrell, a lawyer, $19,225 for services as a campaign consultant. Sorrell told me he had received less than $2,000 from the campaign. He said it would have been "unconscionable" to take more money than that from a council campaign that didn't even make it to the election.

 

So who got the $17,000? And who cares? A spokesman for the Texas Ethics Commission told me the commission probably will never raise that question, because it falls outside the commission's purview. The agency that normally would pursue that matter is the local district attorney, he said.

The crime, if one occurred, probably would involve telling people their money was going to be used for political purposes but converting it instead to personal use, a fraud.

But who goes to the D.A.? Is it Sorrell? A contributor? The city? I have been trying unsuccessfully to reach Sorrell, who normally does talk to me and who clearly is an innocent bystander in the Shaw mess. Sorrell is the acting president of struggling Paul Quinn College, which he is fighting to save from financial ruin with help from the city's business leadership.

Sorrell wasn't cheated out of any money. He has made it plain to me that he didn't want any more money than he was paid.

I hope this is not unfair, but I find it highly unlikely that Sorrell will step forward to stir the pot on the who-got-the-money question. I don't see that it's his job or duty to do so. He probably owes it to Paul Quinn College to stay out of hot water right now.

As for Lynn Flint Shaw's campaign contributors, they make up a very impressive list of Dallas Citizens Council members and arts and charity mavens—in a word, members of the mayor's inner circle on the other side of the river. I don't see any of them raising questions that might embarrass the mayor.

And the city itself? Is the city attorney going to initiate some kind of investigative or enforcement activity or even refer the matter to the district attorney? Will we look up anytime soon and see a great V-formation of cows winging their way home to Capistrano? The city attorney's opinion allowing Shaw to serve as treasurer of "Friends of Tom Leppert" should more than answer that question.

But here is a fair question. If not Sorrell who didn't get the money, and if not the campaign contributors whose money it was, and if not the city attorney whose money comes from the city council, then why the mayor? Why is it Tom Leppert's duty to get involved? Let me give you the answer.

Only because he made it his duty.

In his December 26 ethics letter to the council, Leppert said, "It is the Council's responsibility and duty to establish the appropriate ethical climate and set the 'tone at the top' for City operations."

He went on to say that the council needs to conduct regular workshops on ethics, which he said should be "largely 'case' driven, rather than lecture, and be designed to engage Council discussion.

"Through the analysis of individual situations and circumstances, we can gain a better understanding of issues as they arise and how to work them through in a collective fashion."

OK, I submit to you that it's always easy—sometimes flat-out fun—to discuss the "case-driven" issue of somebody else's ethics. That really doesn't count. The test is whether the mayor can talk about his own cases, and I can think of no better case to start with than Lynn Flint Shaw's Dallas City Council campaign finance reports.

It's a simple question. Who got the money? She signed and swore to statements that she received the money in contributions. It's illegal to convert campaign contributions to personal use. The guy she says she gave it to says she didn't give it to him. She is the mayor's close political associate.

I asked Heinbaugh if the mayor has ever said anything at all in public about this matter. He said, "No."

I asked him another question and got what I thought was a very interesting answer. I asked if the mayor's proposals for restricting political donations from people who do business with the city would apply only to campaign contributions or also to officeholder accounts, such as "Friends of Tom Leppert."

"The officeholder stuff would be covered as well," he said, "in that there are people who make political contributions, but there are two categories. Some are used for campaigns. The others are used for officeholder and office-related things but not used in a political campaign.

"But," he said, "they fall under the umbrella of a political contribution so both sides would be covered under that."

Yeah. Actually, that would have been my argument why it was a violation of the existing city ethics code for Lynn Flint Shaw to sit as treasurer of "Friends of Tom Leppert." The code says an appointee can't be treasurer of a "political committee."

 

I agree with Heinbaugh that contributions to both kinds of committees—campaign and officeholder—are political. Maybe that's another "case-driven" situation the mayor could have the council discuss.

In the meantime my ears are pricked for the sound of hooves flapping aloft.


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