The city’s handling of former Councilwoman Tisha Waddell’s allegations of corruption and secrecy in local government has taken yet another turn: The city’s Ethics Commission may not have the authority to investigate the complaints.
Waddell resigned from the City Council in mid-November, leaving behind a five-page letter alleging corruption and unethical behavior by Mayor Mitch Colvin, city bond attorney Jonathan Charleston and certain members of the council.
Colvin has called the allegations baseless. An investigation by CityView TODAY found no evidence of corruption, but it did find that Colvin, Charleston and others were working behind the scenes in an attempt to get a private equity firm to pay more than $750 million upfront in exchange for operating the Fayetteville Public Works Commission for 30 years.
Waddell resigned on Nov. 9. Nine days later, the City’s Audit Committee unanimously voted to recommend that the City Council investigate her allegations. A request to put the matter on the council’s Dec. 6 work session agenda was signed by Councilman Johnny Dawkins, the Audit Committee’s chairman.
A few hours before the work session was to be held, a CityView TODAY reporter talked to Charleston, who said he was unaware that the Audit Committee was about to recommend that the council call for an investigation. Charleston said that he was familiar with the committee’s bylaws and that “I don’t think that’s in their scope, at all.”
Later, at the work session, Dawkins withdrew the Audit Committee’s recommendation, saying it was not in the committee’s purview. Dawkins said he had consulted with the UNC School of Government, which, he told the council, had drawn a similar conclusion.
The issue got no more traction until January, when CityView TODAY published a two-part series on Waddell’s allegations concerning the proposal to leverage the PWC for 30 years.
Afterward, on Jan. 31, the Audit Committee again agreed to ask the City Council to conduct an independent investigation into Waddell’s allegations.
Dawkins wanted nothing to do with it. He called an investigation “a waste of time.”
Other Audit Committee members disagreed.
“Allegations of fraud, waste and abuse are clearly within the committee’s purview,” committee member Ron O’Brien said.
So the committee’s recommendation returned to the City Council, only to be shot down by a 5-4 vote on Feb. 7. Colvin recused himself from the vote.
But sometime shortly afterward, the council had a change of heart.
On Valentines Day – seven days after voting down an investigation – the council voted unanimously for one to be conducted. But instead of an independent investigation, as Waddell and the Audit Committee had sought, the council voted to have its Ethics Commission handle the probe.
Only now, city officials are finding out that the Ethics Commission may not have the authority to conduct the investigation.
On Monday morning, City Councilman Chris Davis wrote an email to Bob Cogswell, the lawyer for the Ethics Commission, asking for guidance on the matter. City officials and council members were copied on the email, as well.
“I would like to know what are our options?” Davis wrote. “Their (sic) are obviously missing details, which are solely with the author of the letter. Should the author not be contacted by the ethics commission in order to request that the letter be accompanied by the proper information?”
On Monday night, Cogswell wrote his own email, saying the city’s Code of Ethics requires a preliminary determination of whether an investigation falls within the Ethics Commission’s authority.
Cogswell pointed out that allegations contained in Waddell’s resignation letter do not provide dates. The Ethics Commission cannot review allegations of impropriety that happened more than a year earlier. Cogswell added that Waddell's letter doesn’t cite “a description of the City Code provision which may have been violated.”
“I recognize that the current Complaint makes allegations against members of the City Council who initiated the Complaint,” Cogswell wrote. “Nevertheless, in order to proceed the Complaint needs to be submitted in compliance with the COE before it may proceed to consideration by the Ethics Commission.”
The next day, Cogswell sent an email to Waddell, asking her if she wanted to file a complaint with the Ethics Commission based on her resignation letter. Cogswell also sent Waddell the email from Davis, along with his own email questioning whether the commission has the authority to pursue an investigation.
Waddell seems miffed by the whole thing.
“Chris Davis has indicated that he wanted him (Cogswell) to ask me if I wanted to file an ethics complaint, and I want to be very clear that I've never said that this should go to the Ethics Commission,” Waddell said. “I understand the purview of the ethics committee, and I don't think that these things fall under the purview of the ethics committee.”
Waddell said that she and the Audit Committee have never asked for the Ethics Commission to investigate. What they want is an independent investigation.
“I'm more than willing to comply with any investigator that has the ability to actually investigate, because I don't even think that the Ethics Commission investigates,” Waddell said. “I think that they just review information submitted and make a determination. They don't do an investigation.”
In her resignation letter, Waddell also alleges unethical behavior in the city’s handling of a proposal by Dismas Charities to build a halfway house for federal prisoners on land along Cain Road. Charleston had been working as the lawyer for Dismas.
Waddell also alleges that Colvin destroyed public records by having his cell phone “wiped clean” during an investigation that led to the ouster of former Councilman Tyrone Williams, and she questions permits Colvin received for a downtown building.
Greg Barnes is an investigative reporter for CityView TODAY. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Have a news tip? Email news@CityViewTODAY.com.