Mayor Tom Leppert Needs to Walk the Ethics Reform Talk

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.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze