making local government more ethical
Does the "broken windows" theory, as first stated in a 1982 Atlantic essay by George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson, apply to government ethics? The theory says that, if small things like broken windows are ignored, people will think that no one cares and, therefore, they will break more windows and move on to more serious misconduct. It's about setting norms and sending signals.

Forget the misuse of this theory in policing, where individuals are arrested for small offenses, sending them into the criminal justice system when they should not be. The focus of the theory was on fixing windows, showing that people do care, and sending the message that good conduct is the community norm.

Isn't this what a good local government ethics program is supposed to do:  try to prevent and fix the small instances of ethical misconduct through training, advice, and disclosure, so that the big ones don't happen? A good ethics officer should dispose of reports and complaints of minor misconduct and misconduct that isn't covered by the ethics code by talking with the official and trying to get her to understand why what she is alleged to have done (whether or not she actually did it, whether or not there is an enforceable rule involved) might be harmful to the government organization and the community if it were to become (or remain) common.

Gretchen Morgenson's investigative piece in yesterday's New York Times is extremely disturbing. According to her research, local and state government pension funds have taken huge risks, and then allowed them to be hidden from the public, by signing agreements with private equity firms that make their terms confidential, including (1) their high fees and questionable clawback provisions, (2) their provisions for investors to be charged for litigation losses or settlements by the equity firm, and sometimes (3) provisions allowing equity firm general partners to not have a fiduciary duty to the pension funds.

According to an editorial in the Orange County (CA) Register this week, Orange County citizens will soon vote on an initiative that would make their county the second one to turn its campaign finance program over to the state's Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC). But the initiative's wording calls the FPPC "the ethics commission," which causes confusion, because many in the county, including a recent grand jury (see my blog post on this) as well as past grand juries, have called for a local ethics commission to be formed.

The editorial points out that the initiative's language is misleading, because ethics commissions — and there are many good ones in California — do far more than enforce campaign finance laws.

In the last few years, one of the biggest topics in the general area of government ethics, including campaign finance, lobbying, and transparency, has been the effect of huge campaign contributions by corporations and billionaires, which has become increasingly doable pursuant to a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions.

These decisions do not appear to have had as much effect at the local level as at the national and state levels. I did do one blog post a year ago on how local spending by an organization funded primarily by a couple of billionaires backfired. The same post also discusses the old-fashioned problem:  local union and business association expenditures.

According to an article that appeared this weekend in the Contra Costa (CA) Times, the oil company Chevron has given nearly $3 million to three "independent" committees that have supported Richmond candidates sympathetic to its local refinery (the city's largest employer) and opposed candidates critical of it, who had filed a suit against Chevron in 2013, related to safety issues. Although presented as coalitions "of labor unions, small businesses, public safety and firefighters associations," the committees have received only a few thousand dollars from the two associations.

Is this sort of massive campaign expenditure ostensibly to protect a financial investment corrupting? If so, in what way?

An article today in the New York Times describes a situation that sheds light on pay to play. It involves the Westchester County (NY) county executive, who is getting special scrutiny because he is running for governor and has, throughout his career, as well as in this election, been openly critical of pay to play. He is being accused of hypocrisy, but it may just be that he does not really understand what pay to play is, why it is problematic, or how to prevent it.

According to critics, donors who have given the Westchester county executive $900,000 in campaign contributions over the last four years have received $709 million worth of county work. The executive's campaign "scoffed at any causality, noting that contracts must be competitively bid and approved by legislators."

The former chair of the Venice in Peril Fund wrote a disturbing piece for the September 25 issue of the New York Review of Books about corruption in Venice. This corruption derived largely from a major project:  the building of flood protection barriers, known as MOSE. Although this project was larger than those in most cities, the misuse of funds, the failure to competitively bid, the false invoicing, the nepotism and the cronyism are no different. Similarly, the need for independent oversight is the same whether the project involves the building of a new school, a convention center, a transportation system, or a city dump.

Members of the Consorvio, the contractor, have been charged with (and some have confessed to) buying the support of "anyone they thought would further their cause." The founder of the Consorvio, who resigned a year ago after investigators found that he had made illegal payments, has said "that it was he who was behind the system of buying support and influence and granting contracts without an open bidding process."

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