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Ethics Reform Is Still Coming to Dallas City Hall, Sooner or Later

Could a stronger ethics code prevent corruption in local government? Let's catch up with the ethics czar charged with making recommendations.
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Kelsey Shoemaker

Ethics reform is coming to City Hall. Still. Eventually. It’s among the “basics” that Mayor Eric Johnson has urged a new City Council to get back to, along with items like public safety and sanitation services. (The basics having often taken a backseat in a year riven by City Council infighting, debates over “defunding” the police department, and the COVID-19 pandemic.)

Johnson came into office in 2019 pushing ethics reform. There was indeed evidence that ethics at City Hall needed reforming. That year, former City Council member Dwaine Caraway was sentenced to more than four-and-a-half years in prison for pocketing nearly $450,000 in bribes. Another former Council member, Carolyn Davis, who later died in a car crash, pleaded guilty to taking $40,000 in bribes from affordable housing developer Ruel Hamilton. This week, it was Hamilton’s turn: a jury convicted him on three charges related to bribes he paid to Caraway and Davis, and the developer now faces up to 25 years in prison.

In late 2019, Johnson tasked attorney Tim Powers, already chairman of the City Council’s Ethics Advisory Committee, with leading a top-to-bottom review of the city’s ethics code. I called Powers on Wednesday to see how that review was coming along, and what changes his working group may propose to the city’s ethics code.

The pandemic threw off the working group’s original schedule, which called for it to present its recommendations to the City Council more than a year ago. The mayor also asked that Powers and his team watch the most recent election cycle and Hamilton’s trial before delivering their recommendations. But those recommendations are still coming, Powers says.

To develop said recommendations, members of the group—including a former city attorney, a rabbi from Temple Emanu-El, and others with experience in ethics reform in the public and private sectors—reviewed what other cities have done and consulted with corporate and academic experts on the subject.

“Our ethics code is probably a lot more complicated than it needs to be. And so part of the reformation needs to come from that complication,” he says. “Some of it needs to be that in certain places it needs to have more teeth. And we’ve come up with some ideas as to how to do that. And we’ve seen how some other cities have done it successfully. We’ve particularly looked at things that Philadelphia has done, that Houston has done, that were very instructive for us.”

Powers wouldn’t give many specifics before he gets a chance to share them with the City Council, which could come later this year.

“Mayor Johnson looks forward to reviewing the recommendations and working with the city council to reform the ethics code,” the mayor’s spokesman, Tristan Hallman, says in an email.

There are different degrees of unethical behavior. City Council members have in recent years been reprimanded for comparatively minor violations, like failing to report the free use of a visitors bureau suite at the American Airlines Center in gift disclosures or filming a campaign ad at City Hall. But could a stronger city ethics code prevent the level of malfeasance we saw in the cases of Dwaine Caraway and Ruel Hamilton?

“You’re always going to have somebody that runs off the reservation,” Powers says. “We need to be able to find that [unethical activity] before or while it’s occurring as opposed to after it’s occurred.”

That comes down to enforcing and applying the code, Powers says. “It’s going to be really hard unless you’ve got somebody who is sort of the cop on the beat looking at this all the time,” he says, although he is cagey about whether his working group will recommend creating that sort of position.

“We want our ethics code and how people focus on doing the right thing to be part of the culture of our city, particularly our city government,” Powers says.

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