Conflict of Interest: Should Laura Miller Recuse Herself From PD-15 Matters?

Two weeks ago, District 13 council member Jennifer Staubach Gates debated rival candidate and former Dallas Mayor Laura Miller at a luncheon hosted by the Dallas Builders Association. The event was live-streamed and later posted by CandysDirt.com. About 20 minutes into the recording, the topic of PD-15 was raised. (Planned Development district between Preston Tower and Athena on Northwest Highway).

The proposed updating of the area’s decades-old governing document has been one of two zoning issues at the center of this campaign. In mid-February, I pointed out that Laura Miller’s ownership of an Athena condo would constitute a financial conflict from which she’d have to recuse herself.

At the debate, Gates pointed out the conflict to Miller. Here is Miller’s response:

[The city of Dallas’ ethics code says,] “If you are involved financially in a situation that’s voted on by the Dallas City Council, where you will personally be making money where other people will not be making money but you are personally involved and will make money from it, then you have a financial conflict of interest …

My living in the area plan area and having a rental unit that we bought for my mother-in-law before she passed away has nothing to do with the code of ethics and any financial conflict of interest. I do not have a conflict of interest nor would I be or will I be recusing myself from any vote involving zoning in the area.”

According to Miller’s own words, “you have a financial conflict of interest” if “you will personally be making money where other people will not be making money.” Whether redevelopment is good, bad or indifferent to surrounding property values, that trajectory will be influenced by city hall’s vote.

Steve Long, SMU’s Maguire Chair of Ethics wrote that using Aristotle’s definition of truth, “I’m puzzled by the candidate’s response because it appears to violate this basic tenet of truth-telling.” He continued, “If she is making a profit from a rental unit then her conclusion makes no sense.”

Mayor Mike Rawlings echoes this sentiment, “I think that your assessment of the situation is absolutely correct.” (more from Rawlings further down)

Going back in time, Councilwoman Jennifer Gates recused herself from Transwestern’s Laurel apartments on the corner of Preston Road and Northwest Highway. In that deal, global real estate firm JLL (who bought The Staubach Company in 2008) was handling the land transaction.

Dallas’ ethics rules are quite clear.  There are two versions of the rules to help citizen comprehension – legalese and plain English. On the first page of the plain English version it states:

A city official or employee cannot take any action that would affect the financial interests of themselves, their clients, their outside employers, or any business that the city official has a relationship with. For example, you cannot approve a city project that would affect the value of real estate that you own.

Delving into the legalese version there are specifics:

Were Laura Miller to win the District 13 city council seat, she would be subject to:

SEC. 12A-3. IMPROPER ECONOMIC INTEREST.

(a)Economic interests affected. To avoid the appearance and risk of impropriety, a city official or employee shall not take any official action that the city official or employee knows is likely to affect particularly the economic interests of:

(1) the city official or employee; (emphasis mine)

(g) Disclosure of conflicts.

(1) Any applicant seeking city council, city plan commission, board of adjustment, or landmark commission approval on any zoning application shall file a disclosure statement along with the zoning application at the time of application.

(2) The disclosure statement must name any city official or employee known by the zoning applicant to have a conflict of interest in the matter …”

In “g” above, zoning case applicants must file a disclosure statement naming any “city official or employee known by the applicant to have a conflict of interest”.  In PD-15, a zoning “applicant” would be the owners of Preston Place, Diplomat and potentially Royal Orleans.

Listed below in SEC. 12A-12.1 titled Recusal and Disclosure are the rules for city officials to follow when recusing themselves after discovering a conflict.

SEC. 12A-12.1.RECUSAL AND DISCLOSURE.

(a) General rule. A city official or employee whose conduct or action on a matter would violate any section in Article II of this chapter must recuse themselves. From the time that the conflict is recognized, the city official or employee shall:

(1) Immediately refrain from further participation in the matter … and

(2)promptly file with the city secretary a written statement disclosing the conflict …

(b) Additional recusal and disclosure requirements. In addition to the requirements of Subsection (a):

(8)  a city councilmember shall promptly disclose that member’s conflict to the city council and shall not be present during any discussion or voting on the matter.  (Ord. 30391, eff. 7/1/17)

Armed with this, I approached many current and former Dallas politicians, city ethics representatives, and city attorneys about the contradiction between Miller’s statement and the city ethics code. None would comment publicly, except Mayor Mike Rawlings. Some couldn’t comment due to their own conflicts, but the vast majority just didn’t want to get involved. (Insert a comforting “evil flourishes while good men do nothing” quote and I’ll add “how ‘good’ are those who do nothing?)”

“There is no question the city’s enforcement procedures regarding ethics violations creates a way for people to justify their behavior”, said Rawlings. “I also think that your assessment of the situation is absolutely right. I’ve checked with city attorneys and they believe there is a conflict of interest for anybody that is in a situation such as this. Jennifer (Gates) has been very cautious in recusing herself in any issue involving JLL.”

Another who would comment on the record is Stephanie Martin, Assistant Professor of Political Communication at SMU and co-author of Visual Ethics: A Guide for Journalists, Photographers and Filmmakers.

“People confuse ethics and morality,” Martin said. “Morality is more about knowing the difference between right and wrong. Ethics is about behavior—it has to do with the actions people take. It is often easier to talk about morals because we’re speaking in the abstract. Ethics require courage.”

The problem with ethics in Dallas government is that it’s voluntary and almost always retroactive.  City employees can seek advice from the ethics commission, but even a klaxon-call of impropriety can be freely ignored. Typically, only after a violation has occurred, does a citizen file a complaint. And then, in the case of council members, punishment is decided by the city council itself after the ethics commission has heard the case and ruled.

Dr. Martin continued by saying that politics is, by nature, deal making. Candidates seek votes and choose sides. Ethics standards are necessary, but for them to have meaning, ethics requires elected officials and candidates for office to actually behave in ways that bring these values to life.

In 2017, District 14 council member Philip Kingston was found to have violated city ethics when he filmed an invitation to a fundraiser in his City Hall office (a no-no). Kingston didn’t even bother showing up to his hearing and didn’t take down the video until after the hearing nor issue any kind of apology until the city council was discussing punishment. Punishment wound up being ethics training and a reprimand.

Today, April 16, Kingston finds himself again before the ethics commission. An ethics complaint was filed because Kingston didn’t recuse himself from a council vote on Accessory Dwelling Units (ADU) being approved for the neighborhood he lives in. Once ADUs were approved, Kingston filed paperwork for his own ADU.

Kingston’s latest ethics complaint mirrors Miller’s potential ethics violation. Exchange “ADU” for “PD-15” and “lives in” for “owns property in” and Miller’s future may be foreshadowed.

The way Dallas handles ethics, with no preemptive enforcement and weak punishment, enables “crime” that pays. Judging by the signs in and around the Pink Wall, voters looking to Miller to tamp development are rooting for her means to justify their ends.


Remember:  High-rises, HOAs, and renovation are my beat. But I also appreciate modern and historical architecture balanced against the YIMBY movement. In 2016, 2017 and 2018, the National Association of Real Estate Editors recognized my writing with three Bronze (2016, 2017, 2018) and two Silver (2016, 2017) awards.  Have a story to tell or a marriage proposal to make?  Shoot me an email sharewithjon@candysdirt.com. Be sure to look for me on Facebook and Twitter. You won’t find me, but you’re welcome to look.

10 Comment

  • Laura Miller shows no moral compass, her actions are self-serving as she has proved to Dallas over and over again. She talks a big game, but puts her self interest and financial again above everyone else. Shame on this bully!

    Jennifer Staubach Gates recused herself when necessary, but Laura has proclaimed she will not. Dallas City Council members need to show their own ethics and courage to make Laura recuse herself as she morally should.

  • More business as usual behind the Pink Wall.

  • Given that shutting down new development is the logical conclusion of why she entered the race at the very last minute, I don’t hold hope she won’t use any means to reach that end. That isn’t how you represent the interests of all your constituents; compromise and negotiation is. 10-6-4 wasn’t a compromise when four of the six HOAs were opposed, and potential developers deemed it not viable.

  • And who is surprised Laura Miller thumbed her nose at the ethics code and said screw you to anyone that thinks she isn’t voting hers and her Highland Park friends?

  • Cue the Smear Campaigns! Between this and the ugly mud-slinging pop-up ad ” Paid for by the Jennifer
    Staubach Gates Campaign ” and strategically placed
    on Candy’s Dirt…one senses a whiff of desperation
    to go so low. Of course Jon, that does seem to be your signature style. Appealing to your base, as you can see
    from the crude commentary. I’m still unclear how you explain the financial impact of Laura
    Miller’s rental unit by her future actions as our District 13 City Council Representative , those of a thoughtful caring & concerned representative who will actually listen & care about her constituents regarding thoughtful development and practical density levels for the entire neighborhood, UNLIKE our current Council Person Jennifer Gates who doesn’t listen to her constituents at all, rather kowtows to the developers as those are HER PEOPLE, misrepresents and often bends the truth regularly …. Now THAT’S what I call an ETHICS ISSUE!

    • mm

      Thank you for proving my last line, “Judging by the signs in and around the Pink Wall, voters looking to Miller to tamp development are rooting for her means to justify their ends.”
      .
      I’m sorry you refuse to see Miller’s obvious financial conflict (but happily invent conflicts for those you oppose). I’m equally sorry you refuse to understand this sentence copied directly from the city’s ethics code, “For example, you cannot approve a city project that would affect the value of real estate that you own.”

    • mm

      Sharon, those ads you see are not our’s,they are internet ads. CD receives no financial benefit from them. The one I believe you referenced is paid for by the Dallas Police Association and the Dallas Firefighters Association, the two largest public safety associations in North Texas. I’m glad you mentioned them. They are simply stating the facts: as Mayor, Laura failed to appoint Council watchdogs (as required by her job) to the Pension Board; as a result, bad investments were made that, over the years, almost brought the pension near insolvency. It was a huge issue in the 2017 City Council election, in which I ran. It took legal action to stop the DROP withdrawals, deft work by the Texas legislature and a bailout from the citizens of Dallas to keep the pension solvent. So yes, Laura cost us all more money. You may not know this but civil servants such as police and firefighters are not eligible for social security. Therefore had they lost the pension, they would have had zero retirement. Try having a pension in crisis mode when you are trying to hire quality police candidates. And it all started on Laura’s watch as mayor. The crime issues we have in Dallas today, poor pay, poor morale, down to 2600 active officers (we need 4000) is a direct result of her gross mismanagement. She is promising results that are far beyond her powers, and if she insists on working on PD-15 despite having an investment property in the area, there will be lawsuits. She is lying when she says she can guarantee a park over the Preston Center parking garage. She can no more do that than you can expand your master closet to the center of Averill Way. Still, I like Laura. If I heard some facts from her I might even support her. But voting for candidates who have a distorted sense of reality nets us Dwayne Carraway. I am angry at Jennifer gates for being so easy on VisitDallas! And we do not support developers in one broad stroke. We support real estate economic reality. Truth is residents who live in the towers do not want to see a third tower. They are blaming increased density on increased traffic when 500 pple are moving to DFW a DAY! Lets find the truth, the facts, deal with that. I’m glad you brought up the chance for me to tell you all how much the Dallas Police DO NOT want to see Laura Miller elected.

    • As Candy explained, if you saw a political ad on our page at all, rest assured it was auto-populated from the internet, and was not sold by CandysDirt.com. We have not sought or sold political advertisements on our site.
      While you’re certainly in the right to voice your opinion, I would like to say that there have been several occasions where you have asserted that Candy has a close relationship with Jennifer Gates, and it has colored our coverage. I would like to address this with two points: Jon Anderson writes these pieces, and they are clearly marked as opinion as well. Secondly, we are not in communication with Gates, other than to get the occasional comment on a story.
      In an earlier piece, you intimated that Candy had a confab with Gates after the Dallas Builders Association debate. I would like to clarify that, had you been close enough to hear the conversation, you would’ve heard Candy speaking to Gates to urge her to fill out our candidate questionnaire. At this point, neither candidate has. Perhaps you can urge the former Mayor to do so.

  • Laura Miller has no integrity whatsoever, nor does she have any interest in representing the best interests of her constituents.

  • Dream on if you think Laura Miller is going to be “a thoughtful caring & concerned representative who will actually listen & care about her constituents regarding thoughtful development and practical density levels for the entire neighborhood”. From what I have read about her behavior at all the meetings about PD15, she doesn’t seem to listen well, its more more like she has a bullying style or monopoly of talking. Let’s not be stupid. It is simply irrational to say someone has rental property to not make money and this will always color her perspective or anyone’s perspective. This is where Laura Miller’s ethics fly out the door. Dallas has a history of unethical or corrupt leadership which mostly hurts those who are low income and have no power.