making local government more ethical
According to an article in today's New York Daily News, an investigation by the U. S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York has found that the son of the NY State Senate majority leader was a consultant for a company that won a county stormwater treatment contract in the majority leader's district, despite not being the low bidder and, according to a New York Times article, despite creating a need for state legislative approval due to the company filling a duel role in the project (it is unlikely now that approval will be provided).

According to the Times, the U. S. Attorney is trying to determine whether the senator tried to influence the bidding process and whether the senator's son was hired by the contractor as "part of a scheme in which the senator, in exchange, would take official action that would benefit" the contractor or a real estate developer with ties to it.

Mixing Election Oversight and Professional Contracts
According to an Illinois Business Times article on April 5, the Chicago Board of Election Commissioners is chaired by an attorney whose law firm has received presumably no-bid contracts to lobby for city agencies, that is, contracts from the administration whose mayor and alders were running for re-election. In a close race, the chair could affect whether the mayor or his allies were elected or required to face a runoff.

Chicago has a system to independently name members of the election board. This meant that the chair was not appointed by the mayor or the council, but by the county circuit court. However, the board's rules do not prohibit its members entering into city contracts, even though the contracts create a special relationship with the mayor and council.

I just read a classic work of philosophical psychology, Self-Deception (Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1969), wherein Herbert Fingarette takes an interesting approach to a phenomenon common to politics, but which seems paradoxical and, therefore, difficult to understand. How can someone effectively lie to himself as well as to others (and is it still a lie)? How can someone know something and yet not know it, or believe something that he knows is not true? And what implications does self-deception have for government ethics?

Failing to Spell Out
When we engage with the world, Fingarette says, we only "spell out" to ourselves what we are doing when we have a special reason to. When there is a reason not to spell out to ourselves what we are doing, that is, when it is in our interest to avoid being explicitly conscious of what we are doing (e.g., when engaging in ethical misconduct), we often avoid spelling out. For example, someone may make an ad hominem remark (that is, a criticism of a person rather than of what the person is saying) without consciously realizing that she is doing anything other than making a legitimate criticism.

Self-deception occurs when someone persistently avoids spelling out a particular kind of activity, such as taking gifts from restricted sources or using one's office to help family members. It is not that, each time, the official decides not to recognize what he is doing. It is, effectively, a "policy commitment," something generally avoided and, therefore, automatically not recognized each time it occurs.

This is the fourth of four blog posts on Zephyr Teachout's excellent new book, Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin's Snuff Box to Citizens United (Harvard Univ. Press).

Extortion and Pay to Play
Teachout talks about the difference in the origins of bribery and extortion statutes, the first coming out of judicial rules (bribing judges), the second coming out of rules governing appointed or employed officials who use their position to require money from those the official is supposed to serve for free.

It's interesting that one rarely hears the word "extortion" in a government context anymore. The term "pay to play" covers one form of extortion, but it certainly seems less judgmental. Pay to play, because much of it is legal and it is done by elected officials rather than employees, is frowned upon, but often considered ordinary business, unlike bribery or extortion.

And yet, Teachout notes, extortion was, at first, more likely to be criminalized "perhaps because the power dynamic of an official extorting a citizen was more dangerous than a citizen bribing an official." But Teachout says that from the mid-18th century "the elements of bribery and extortion were increasingly fused."

This is the third of four blog posts on Zephyr Teachout's excellent new book, Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin's Snuff Box to Citizens United (Harvard Univ. Press).

Other Anti-Corruption Laws
Teachout is good at presenting laws as anti-corruption laws which are not usually considered this way. For example, the Seventeenth Amendment, which provided for the direct election of U.S. senators, ensured that they were more likely to be independent (at least until campaigns became very expensive). And antitrust laws were in part an attempt to prevent the creation of the sort of huge companies that are more easily able to control government officials. The Takings Clause, as well as the copyright and patents clause, were "intended as at least a partial limitation on the power to corruptly sell special property privileges."

We often forget about the Twenty-Seventh Amendment, which required that congressional salary raises take effect only at the beginning of the following session. Since politics has been professionalized, and incumbents tend to be re-elected, this doesn't amount to much anymore. But legislative salaries are still, along with government ethics laws, among the few situations where local legislators vote on matters that apply directly and specially to their personal interests.

This is the second of four blog posts on Zephyr Teachout's excellent new book, Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin's Snuff Box to Citizens United (Harvard Univ. Press).

A Culture of Gift Giving
In the book's introduction, Teachout notes that, back in the 18th century, the idea of elected officials accepting gifts was already very different in America than it was in Europe. Gifts had "positive associations of connection and graciousness" in Europe, and "negative associations of inappropriate attachments and dependencies" in America. Americans had a more puritanical view of such gifts as "seductive," "luxurious," and "Old World." Therefore, all gifts to officials, including diplomats, had to be approved by Congress, making them public rather than private. The goal was not to prevent bribery, but rather, as Teachout says, to prevent "a culture of gift giving." More positively, the goal was to create "an aristocracy of virtue and talent" instead of an aristocracy of power and wealth (quoting Gordon S. Wood, Radicalism of the American Revolution (Knopf, 1992, p. 183)).

But even then, it was hard for officials to reject or disclose gifts. Teachout tells a story of Thomas Jefferson failure to disclose an expensive gift from the French king, which ends: "his simultaneous disdain for European gifts and his inability to resist them foreshadow a long American practice: our desire to reject and accept the old practices simultaneously."