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It all started with a private meeting among three members of the Orlando-Orange County Expressway Authority board, according to an article last week in the Orlando Sentinel. The subject of the informal meeting was the ouster of the executive director, which took place at the next formal meeting.

But after an investigation into the private meeting, a grand jury indicted one of the three members for bribery and soliciting compensation for official behavior. Lesson:  open meeting act violations are sometimes related to government ethics and criminal misuse of office violations.

There are three interesting issues in this one minor matter, involving a Louisiana sheriff's purchase of a house at a foreclosure sale handled by the sheriff's office.

The Application of Ethics Laws to Foreclosure Purchases
The first issue involves the transaction itself, the particular law in Louisiana, and how more common conflict laws may be interpreted in such a situation.

Louisiana has an unusual law that deals with this sort of transaction:
§1113. Prohibited contractual arrangements
A.(1) No public servant ... or member of such a public servant's immediate family, or legal entity in which he has a controlling interest shall bid on or enter into any contract, subcontract, or other transaction that is under the supervision or jurisdiction of the agency of such public servant.
One of the especially good aspects of this language is that it is not limited to situations where an official was personally involved in a transaction. The rule acknowledges that, to the public, it doesn't matter if the sheriff's deputy had handled the auction. What matters is that it was the sheriff's office. Similarly, a deputy should not be allowed to purchase property at an auction run by the sheriff or by another deputy.

Government ethics groups come in all shapes and sizes. City Ethics, an ordinary nonprofit, has a website with huge amounts of information about government ethics, and no financial resources. The American Dream Initiative, a social welfare organization founded last year, apparently has large financial resources, but no website and no information about government ethics.

I say "apparently" because, according to an article that went up yesterday afternoon on the Austin American-Statesman website, the American Dream Initiative recently funded ads that cost about half-a-million dollars criticizing a Texas attorney general candidate. The ads, during the week before a run-off election, say that the candidate, a state senator, was reprimanded by a securities regulator for having taken kickbacks. They also ask viewers to contact the candidate and tell him "to support ethics reform legislation to make government honest."

Lax post-employment provisions can come back to haunt high-level officials. They may have been thinking of their futures and those of their close colleagues when they opposed laws that would require them not to represent anyone before the government for a year or two after leaving public service. But when one of their close colleagues takes advantage of the resulting hole in the post-employment provision and becomes a lobbyist, it reflects poorly on the high-level official in two ways. The official appears to be ready to favor his close colleague's clients, and his insistence that this is legal simply emphasizes his own weakness regarding government ethics regulation.

According to an article in the Pantagraph this week, this is the situation Illinois' governor is in after his chief of staff became a lobbyist five months after leaving his position. Suddenly, because it is an election year, the governor is scrambling to look stronger on government ethics by saying he wants to make the state's post-employment provision apply to gubernatorial chiefs of staff and deputy governors.

A local lobbying law is only as good as its enforcement, especially when local government leaders provide no leadership.

According to a column by Scott Cooper Williams in the Green Bay (WI) Press Gazette yesterday, Green Bay passed a lobbying registration law three years ago and, since that time, only seven lobbyists, representing two total clients, registered.

This city hall reporter says that he saw lobbying going on all the time. "That is why I expected a rush of activity when city leaders three years ago took steps to make lobbying more transparent. ... But weeks turned into months, and not a single lobbyist came forward to sign up."

I just finished reading a masterpiece of a novel about Nuoro, a town in Sardinia:  Salvatore Satta's The Day of Judgment, translated from the Italian by Patrick Creagh. It's a very wise, witty, and sad novel. Here are a few pearls of wisdom that shed light on local government ethics.

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