A former Scottsdale councilman has accused a sitting councilwoman of ethics violations, alleging she pressured the city to drop an investigation brought against a political ally.
David Smith filed an ethics complaint with the city on Aug. 29 that alleged Councilwoman Solange Whitehead pressured City Manager Jim Thompson to drop an investigation into whether or not community activist Jason Alexander and others associated with the No DDC organization and PAC violated state law during and after the November 2018 election cycle.
Whitehead and Alexander both supported the now-adopted Prop 420 charter amendment that went before voters in 2018 and bans further development on the McDowell Sonoran Preserve without voter approval.
Whitehead was never a part of the No DDC organization. She was a board member for Protect Our Preserve, another pro-Prop 420 organization, but resigned in order to run for council.
The preserve issue propelled Whitehead, a dark horse candidate at outset of the campaign, to her first term on the council.
Smith, an incumbent running against Whitehead and three other candidates for three open seats, lost his reelection bid.
Smith filed that campaign finance complaint in May 2019, alleging that, among other issues, funds donated to the No DDC Inc. nonprofit were funneled to the No DDC political action committee without proper documentation.
Alexander, who ran the now shuttered No DDC nonprofit and the PAC, is named in the complaint along with Michael Norton and Rebecca Holmes.
In June, the City Clerk found cause to refer some aspects of the complaint to the City Attorney’s office for investigation.
Smith’s ethics complaint cites emails from Whitehead to City Manager Jim Thompson in which Whitehead wrote “I am writing to request that this be dropped immediately.”
This new revelation sheds light on the decision by acting City Attorney Joe Padilla to punt Smith’s complaint against Alexander to the City of Phoenix Attorney’s Office.
At the time, a spokesman for the city only said that “The reason the campaign finance law complaint was referred to the Phoenix City Attorney was to avoid an appearance of impropriety.”
In asking Thompson to dismiss the complaint against No DDC, Whitehead expressed concerns that the complaint could be politically motivated and that Alexander had already paid for his mistakes when he resolved a previous campaign finance violation filed against No DDC in 2018.
Alexander paid a $5,000 fine after former City Attorney Bruce Washburn determined that No DDC failed to register as a political action committee.
Whitehead called the second finance complaint “frivolous” and a waste of taxpayer money in the email, characterizing Alexander as a resident and father who took on the government and made some mistakes out of naivety not malice.
Alexander “has more than paid for any errors he made fighting to protect tax dollars and public land. We want to show citizens that they are rewarded for challenging the positions of elected officials. Otherwise, our democracy will fail. Please have this tossed out,” Whitehead wrote.
Whitehead also warned Thompson that continuing to pursue the complaint could have political repercussions, writing:
“The City can either drop this quietly or we can choose to poke the public hornet’s nest.”
In his new complaint, Smith alleged that Whitehead’s email was an attempt to obstruct justice and violated the city’s ethics code, which bars office holders from using their position for personal gain or to exert undue influence.
Additionally, Smith said the complaint could ultimately warrant a referral to the Arizona Attorney General’s Office because it concerns an alleged attempt to obstruct an investigation into violations of state campaign finance law.
“Scottsdale residents deserve and should have trust in their elected representatives to represent the laws of our city, our state and our nation, all of which protect our citizens,” Smith wrote in a statement provided to the Progress.
Whitehead disagreed with Smith’s characterization of her email.
“I would not try nor ever want to obstruct justice,” Whitehead said.
Whitehead argued that she was simply trying to protect a citizen against what she viewed at the time as “duplicate campaign finance complaints.”
She said that Alexander had been the public face of a campaign that ultimately took power away from the City Council and she wanted to make sure he was not being unduly punished for that effort.
However, Smith contended that her appeal to drop the investigation was a clear violation.
“I don’t think there was any question that she was trying to get the thing stopped,” Smith said. “She said as much, and the manner in which she said that made it pretty clear.”
Ultimately, Whitehead said “What I now understand is that the second complaint did not duplicate the first and cannot be dropped for ‘double jeopardy’.”
She said she supported Padilla’s decision to refer the case to City of Phoenix.
“I think this is a good idea,” read an email from Whitehead to Padilla about the referral.
The finance complaint is still under review.
“The campaign finance complaint remains with the City of Phoenix for investigation — we do not have a status to provide,” said a city spokesperson.
The ethics complaint has been forwarded to an independent ethics officer, said a city spokesperson.
“While the screening is being conducted, the city will not discuss or comment on the complaint,” the spokesperson said.
The process to adjudicate the complaint is outlined in the City Code.
The City Attorney keeps a rotation of 10 to 12 ethics reviewers available at any given time to handle complaints filed against the mayor or City Council. Each year, the City Attorney nominates someone from that group to serves as the city’s independent ethics reviewer.
To qualify as an independent ethics reviewer for the city, individuals must be retired federal or state judges or faculty members at the law schools at Arizona State University or The University of Arizona. The reviewer must also not be a Scottsdale resident and not work for a firm that regularly has business in Scottsdale.
The reviewer has 15 days to make a recommendation concerning the complaint, which can include dismissing the case if it is found to have no merit.
If the reviewer finds that the complaint has merit, they can refer it to applicable law enforcement agencies if there is an alleged violation of state or federal law.
The reviewer can also refer the complaint to a three-person panel made up of individuals in the city’s independent ethics pool if the matter in question concerns a violation of Scottsdale’s ethics code.
At that point, the panel has 60 days to review the case and report back to the council. The council must then consider the report in a public meeting and either accept or reject the findings.
The City Code does not include guidance regarding potential consequences if it is found that a violation occurred.
Editor's Note: To clarify, Whitehead's email to Thompson specifically addressed allegations made against Alexander in Smith's campaign finance complaint, and did not reference allegations against Michael Norton. The City Clerk previously found no cause to refer allegations against Norton to the City Attorney.