The Sioux Falls Board of Ethics once again denied a request from former mayoral candidate David Zokaites to investigate the extent of third-party paid travel among city officials — a practice the board said they may have given the impression happens more often than it does.
Zokaites’ request centered around the board’s report from last August, following a complaint made about Councilor Greg Neitzert, which centered on a trip he and Mayor Paul TenHaken took to a conference of Republican municipal and county officials.
The host, Community Leaders of America, paid for Neitzert’s travel expenses, which complainant John Cunningham said violated a Sioux Falls City Ordinance, which states city officials shall not solicit or accept gifts, “whether in the form of money, services, loan, travel, entertainment, hospitality, thing or promise, or any other form, under circumstances in which it could reasonably be inferred that the gift was intended to influence, or could reasonably be expected to influence the officer.”
In the report, the board did not recommend individual sanctions against Neitzert, writing that “other incidents of past travel by city officers for which a third party paid expenses,” and that “the practice appears to be common.”
Zokaites said that “by not investigating and disclosing the common practice of accepting gifts, the Ethics Advisory Board has protected and encouraged commonplace bribery.”
Board Chair Jack Marsh pushed back on Zokaites’ claims, noting the board had not only found probable cause that an ethical violation may have occurred, they recommended the city both increase transparency around travel and revise the ordinance to clarify the city’s rules, which he later added they have not done.
Other board members noted not all travel paid for by a third party was necessarily illegal or unethical, as Zokaites claimed, and the city council had determined by a 5-2 vote that Neitzert had not committed an ethical violation.
Zokaites continued to refer to the phrase “common practice” until Sue Roust said that the phrase had been “perhaps an improper choice of words.”
Roust said there had been another city official on the same trip as Neitzert (but did not name TenHaken) and said there had been another city councilor who had taken a trip under similar circumstances.
“We haven’t defined how common is common,” Roust said, saying they simply knew it had happened “to some extent.”
After Zokaites began to quote the definition of the word “bribery” from an online dictionary, Marsh soon ended the discussion, and a motion to decline the investigation passed unanimously.
“I’m actually making progress on this ethics issue,” Zokaites said in a statement. “Last October, the board only needed a few seconds to summarily reject my request for investigation. This time, it took 30 minutes of discussion to reach the same result. Conversation and discussion are preliminaries to change. Progress sometimes comes slowly.”