making local government more ethical
ALEC has gone local. No, not Alec Baldwin. ALEC is the American Legislative Exchange Council, an organization that for the last few years has been drafting conservative legislation for state legislatures. According to an article in today's New York Times, this year ALEC started a new program called the American City County Exchange, which will draft conservative legislation for local legislatures.

Its first area of focus is right-to-work laws, the term for laws that prohibit labor unions from requiring their members to pay fees. The members still get the value of the union's work, but don't have to pay for it. This leaves the union with less resources to get politically involved. The goal of these laws is changing the balance of political competition.

The issue I want to raise involves local lobbying. When organizations such as ALEC try to get county officials to pass their laws, they do not have to disclose their lobbying, because very few counties have lobbying oversight programs. Thus, according to the article, when an ALEC ordinance came before the Warren County, Kentucky Fiscal Court (effectively, the county commission) last week, it came completely out of the blue, with no disclosure of lobbying or even of the topic of the ordinance.

When it comes to local lobbying oversight, cities are falling like flies. At least in Canada.

According to an article yesterday on the Vancouver, BC Metro News website, the city council voted unanimously to look into establishing a lobbying registry and hiring an independent ombuds, apparently to run the registry and more. This follows the vote to establish a lobbying registry in Hamilton, and the establishment of lobbying registries in Toronto and Ottawa.

I wish the news were as good in the U.S. Here the best news is that the chapter of my book Local Government Ethics Programs on lobbying (along with a Model Lobbying Code) should be done and online by the end of January, if all goes well.

It amazes me how many ways elected officials misuse charitable organizations to engage in ethical misconduct, especially to get around gift rules. One would think that charities would be sufficiently sacrosanct. But instead they are frequently used as an indirect form of pay to play, and they have played a major role in getting around campaign finance limitations.

The form of misuse of charitable organizations that this post will look at involves a company that wants to get around restrictions on corporate campaign contributions. It is not enough that the company's employees are allowed to give to a corporate SSF (separately segregated fund, essentially a corporate PAC). The company decided to induce such gifts by double "matching" them with its own gifts to a charitable organization that does only one thing:  help out its employees when they are in need.

The company is Wal-Mart, the charity is Wal-Mart Associates in Critical Need Fund, and the matter that has arisen is a complaint filed with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) by Public Citizen and Common Cause. The most amazing fact stated in the complaint is that the FEC has already issued twelve opinions on this very topic, allowing almost all of the situations on the grounds that there was not "an exchange of corporate treasury funds for voluntary contributions and a form of indirect compensation for the contributor's contribution."

I've written several posts about individuals who have created fiefdoms (a D.A., a housing authority director, a city pension board attorney, the director of a council of local governments, and the CEO of a state university foundation), but none of them were union leaders. A large investigative piece in the New York Times today provides an excellent description of the fiefdom of the head of New York City's correction officers union.

Uniformed unions wield a disproportionate power in most local governments. One reason is that their support is often considered necessary to win an election. This gives them a great deal of leverage with elected officials. For one thing, mayors and local legislators rarely criticize the unions in public. For example, when in November, the mayor called for "a culture change" in the city's violent jail, he criticized the corrections department, not the union. In fact, in October, the mayor publicly praised the union president.

The Times investigation shows how many other ways the union president wields his power. The principal way is through intimidation. He allegedly walked into the office of the department's lead investigator and threatened her. And then she was replaced . . . with a childhood friend of the union president, whose brother had been on the union's executive board. A culture of violence against prisoners can derive from a culture of fear and cronyism in a fiefdom.

According to an article yesterday on the Baltimore Brew website, a year ago Baltimore's mayor officiated at a wedding between two individuals who lobby the city government. In Las Vegas, no less.

Mayors, judges and, sometimes, other local government officials often officiate at weddings. Some ethics codes have a special exception from the gift ban that allows for this, but most make no mention of it.

The question is, should there be limits on officiating at weddings, or should government officials be allowed to use their public office to officiate at anyone's wedding, including those of lobbyists, contractors, developer, and grantees ("restricted sources")?

The principal value of lobbying, according to both lobbyists and government officials, is the expert information lobbyists provide. The view is often stated that, with the resources they have, government officials could not effectively do their job without the expertise they obtain from lobbyists.

The public, however, has no idea how this information is used. When it turns out that a lobbyist effectively wrote a bill, argument, letter, or speech that an official presents as his own work, no matter how useful this service may be, it appears that the official is representing the lobbyist's client rather than the public.

An article in today's New York Times quotes former Oregon attorney general David B. Frohnmayer on the topic, specifically with respect to a letter written by a energy industry lobbyist for a state attorney general to send to the federal Environmental Protection Agency:
“When you use a public office, pretty shamelessly, to vouch for a private party with substantial financial interest without the disclosure of the true authorship, that is a dangerous practice. The puppeteer behind the stage is pulling strings, and [the public] can’t see. I don’t like that. And when it is exposed, it makes [the public] feel used.”
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