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Dallas approves new office to investigate city corruption claims

The new division of Inspector General is among several ethics rules changes the City Council approved to cut down on wrongdoing by Dallas officials and staff.

Dallas will create a new office to investigate allegations of wrongdoing by city officials and make other changes to ethics rules that are meant to cut down on corruption.

Dallas City Council members unanimously approved several proposals Wednesday they say will strengthen transparency and accountability to residents as well as make reporting ethics violations and rules more clear.

Mayor Eric Johnson, who made ethics reform one of his campaign promises, said he thought this was the most important vote the council has ever taken. In light of several city scandals involving politicians who have been found guilty of corruption-related charges, Johnson convened a task force to study the issue. The task force suggested changes in September.

Johnson said that, while ethics reform may be too abstract for many residents compared with other city issues, he doesn’t believe Dallas can be a great city without strong rules and compliance at City Hall.

“This vote today on ethics reform represents a sea change in the way this city does business,” Johnson said. “It’s a historic vote. It’s a monumental vote. And it’s the right thing to do to restore the public’s trust.”

A key part of the reforms is the creation of an inspector general division in the city attorney’s office, which would receive and investigate all internal fraud, waste, abuse and corruption complaints and anonymous tips. The division would have subpoena power and present credible cases to Dallas’ ethics advisory commission.

The vote Wednesday allows the city to begin the process of hiring the inspector general, who will likely be an attorney. It’s not immediately clear when the person will be hired.

City Attorney Chris Caso told council members earlier this month that the plan is to seek input from the inspector general about how big the division should be.

The inspector general could also review claims of retaliation against whistleblowers. The division would also have to submit quarterly reports on the results of all investigations.

Currently, complaints are filed with the city secretary’s office and tips are phoned in to the auditor’s office. But neither one examines the claims, so complainants must investigate and present their cases to the ethics advisory commission.

It’ll cost nearly $198,000 to create the inspector general position, and it’s currently planned to cost as much yearly.

Other approved changes include:

  • Increasing training for city officials, staff and registered lobbyists on Dallas’ ethics code.
  • Widening conflict-of-interest rules to require elected officials and employees to recuse themselves and disclose a conflict in cases where they stand to benefit in any way from their actions on behalf of the city. The old rule covered only economic benefits.
  • Allowing council members to use their city title in political endorsements rather than “honorable.”
  • Banning anyone seeking a public subsidy, such as tax credits, from directly or indirectly lobbying a council member about the matter before it’s decided.
  • Banning council members from talking about a public subsidy request with any applicants or intermediaries before a decision is made.
  • Expanding the ethics advisory commission from seven to 15 members. New qualifications to serve on the commission would include requiring at least six members to hold a law degree or experience working as a justice of the peace, a college professor in ethics or criminal justice or an ethics officer in an organization.

Council members on Wednesday described the changes as the first step of city ethics reform. The city attorney’s office will make more proposals to the council to change ethics policies next year.

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