making local government more ethical
According to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle last week, Oakland's council approved an amendment to the city charter, to go before voters in November, that would increase the authority of the city's ethics commission and provide it with the funds it needs to do its job. Congratulations to the council for what is, in some ways, an excellent reform package.

This ethics reform process began with a June 2013 civil grand jury report, which called for giving the city's ethics commission more authority to enforce ethics laws, and more resources with which to do it. Then, in May 2014, a working group of individuals mostly from good government-oriented civic organizations filed a report that made numerous ethics reform recommendations (see my blog post on it). The council quickly got to work on a charter amendment that contains some of the working group's recommendations.

According to an Associated Press article this weekend, Jim Moran, a congressman from Virginia, was banned from entering Russia supposedly for a series of financial misdeeds. These supposed misdeeds, as delineated in Moran's Wikipedia page, include ethics and ethics-related criminal allegations that have been dismissed by the House Ethics Committee, the Virginia Attorney General, and the Federal Elections Commission. Allegations of insider trading based on a 2008 briefing by the Treasury Secretary and Federal Reserve chair do not appear to have been investigated. There is no reason to believe that there was any particular wrongdoing by any of these bodies or offices; in fact, at least one of the allegations would not be illegal but, if true, would instead be an example of common, institutional corruption.

This might be the first time an American politician has been sanctioned by a foreign country for ethics violations (with or without a hearing). However, it is believed that the real reason for the ban, besides simply a tit-for-tat response to an American entry ban on certain Russians, was Moran's sponsorship of an amendment prohibiting the U.S. purchase of helicopters from a Russian state arms dealer that is alleged to have supplied the Assad regime in Syria.

A New York Daily News article yesterday describes an interesting conflict situation. At least one lobbying firm has worn two hats in its relationship with the speaker of the New York City council. One hat was that of a campaign and appointments consultant, the other was that of a contract lobbyist for multiple clients. See a Crain's New York Insider blog post from January for more about such relationships with the speaker.

This is legal, as the speaker's spokesperson insists, but there is still a serious conflict situation that needs to be handled responsibly. As Susan Lerner, head of New York Common Cause, is quoted as saying, “The merger between campaign consultant and lobbyist by the same entity raises significant problems and concerns.” In other words, the problem lies in having one firm wearing multiple hats in its relationship with a high-level official.

What specific problems does wearing these two hats cause? One, consulting creates a special relationship that goes beyond the usual meals and meetings with lobbyists. A special relationship leads to special access and favoritism, or the appearance of these. Lobbying is all about relationships, and lobbyists are obligated to do anything they can to further their relationships, especially with someone as important as the head of a major city's council.

I keep thinking about the recent line of U.S. Supreme Court campaign finance cases that limit corruption to "quid pro quo" situations. A few months ago, I wrote a blog post explaining that the Court's picture of campaign finance as about political beliefs is not how things work at the local level, where politics is more about power and spoils than about beliefs. But the "quid pro quo" view of corruption is problematic in other ways.

One problem is that this view involves only one kind of corruption:  personal corruption. It is relevant only to situations where one individual wants a candidate or official to do something very specific in return for a campaign contribution. This is a problem, but it is not the principal problem in campaign finance.

Is it appropriate for a mayor — especially a mayor in a city with strict gift rules and a public campaign financing program that has strict campaign contribution limits — to work with an organization that lobbies the state on behalf of his policies and sponsors ads and materials that support his views and, especially, celebrate his successes?

This is the situation in New York City, where Bill de Blasio, in his first year in office, is being celebrated by an entity called Campaign for One New York (CONY), which announced yesterday its expenditures and contributors (in keeping with de Blasio's support of transparency, it went well beyond the requirement of disclosing contributors of over $5,000).

An excellent editorial yesterday by Dan Barton, editor of the Kingston (NY) Times, raises a few important issues relating to local government ethics proceedings.

According to Barton, Kingston's new ethics board dismissed a complaint from a city alderman that the mayor had violated the ethics code by hiring as an attorney for the city's local development corporation a lawyer with whom the mayor practiced as "of counsel."