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According to an article this week in Governing magazine, a report in Public Administration Review found that "more corrupt states tended to spend money on construction, highways, and police protection programs, which provide more opportunity for corrupt officials to use public money for their own gain. These states spend less on health, education, and welfare, which provide less opportunity for officials to collect bribes, according to Indiana University's John Mikesell, who co-authored the report with Cheol Liu of the University of Hong Kong." The report is entitled "The Impact of Public Officials’ Corruption on the Size and Allocation of U.S. State Spending."

Many people believe that conflicts of interest are limited to situations where money is involved. When these people write ethics laws, as they often do, the law effectively says that where money isn't involved, any conduct is acceptable.

An investigative piece in yesterday's New York Times raises an interesting issue regarding complicity in ethical misconduct:  is there an obligation not to be complicit with misconduct at a different governmental level when, arguably, that misconduct financially benefits one's own government?

According to the article, when Bayonne, NJ was in deep financial trouble in 2010, with the state talking about bailing it out the way it had bailed out Camden in 2002, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey purchased a piece of land from the city (1) that the port authority had no use for and (2) at a price substantially higher than it was worth (in fact, the year the purchase was made, the port authority wrote down the value of the property). This apparently fraudulent purchase meant that the city would be in solid financial shape, at least for the short run.

The apparent purpose of this purchase was not only to help the city of Bayonne, but to solve a dilemma for New Jersey's governor, who "was confronting a huge deficit in New Jersey’s budget, while trying to keep a campaign promise to not raise taxes." The purchase shifted the problem from the state to the port authority.

Rhode Island's lawmakers really know how to protect themselves. They have fought hard and long to effectively preserve their immunity from state ethics commission jurisdiction. However, with pressure on them to recommend to their constituents a constitutional amendment that would give the EC jurisdiction over them, despite the state's Speech in (sic) Debate Clause, they have planted a bomb in their proposed amendment that will ensure that even the state's good government organizations would oppose it (and that few ordinary citizens would understand what all the fuss was about).

What the state legislature did was to add in a de novo review process, which would allow any state or local official the EC found in violation of the state ethics code to seek a new court trial. The court would not be able to consider the EC's factual findings. In other words, instead of a right to appeal an EC ruling (where the court would determine whether the EC had done anything inappropriate), all officials would get a second chance to argue the facts and the law, and to have their case decided by a judge who would likely care far less about government ethics and have less expertise than the EC.

Good news and bad news about lobbying from New York City's new mayor. The good news, according to a recent article on the Capital New York website, is that the mayor has said that his administration will disclose "substantive" meetings that members of his administration conduct with lobbyists. This is, he says, a practice he followed when he was the city's public advocate (a sort of ombuds), before he was elected mayor.

Disclosure of such meetings by officials is an excellent check on disclosure by lobbyists, and provides an official-by-official view of the lobbying that is done. This could be required by ordinance or regulation, but when it is not, it is good to see high-level officials setting up a procedure in the meantime.

However, voluntary disclosure is not a replacement for making disclosure part of the lobbying or conflicts of interest program, because a voluntary procedure usually lacks detailed definitions and requirements, training, neutral advice, and independent enforcement. It is a valuable gesture, and can provide useful information, but it works best for a mayor – as opposed to an independent office like an ombuds — as a step toward the goal of institutionalizing the procedure.

"Trials are primarily about the truth. Consent decrees are primarily about pragmatism."


— Second Circuit Court of Appeals in SEC v. Citigroup Global Markets, Inc., Nos. 11-5227-cv, 11-5375-cv and 11-5242-cv (2nd Cir., June 4, 2014).

These words from an important court decision yesterday will most likely be quoted in all sorts of contexts, including with respect to ethics settlements, the consent decrees of government ethics.

It's important to recognize why what may be appropriate when a government agency sues a private company is not appropriate when a citizen oversight body handles an administrative action brought against a public servant.