making local government more ethical
According to an article in yesterday's Chicago Sun-Times, Illinois Gov. Quinn called the new ethics bill he signed a "landmark" change to the state's political culture. However, Patrick Collins, whom Quinn had named to chair the commission that recommended these ethics reforms and many more, called the new ethics provisions "tweaks to the system. ... What we always were advocating for was game-changing reform."
"I have counseled many individuals and companies grappling with investigations, but this is the first time I've provided this type of advice to a municipality." When I saw this quotation in the National Law Journal, I thought, "Yeah, that's because municipalities aren't investigated, people are."

This quote is from David Laufman, former federal prosecutor and partner in the large law firm Kelley Drye & Warren, which has been hired by New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin to give the city advice on the three ongoing federal investigations. Only the city isn't being investigated, city officials are, including the mayor.

Update - see below (9/2/09)
One of the biggest limitations on local government ethics codes can be state ethics laws. In Connecticut, for example, state laws seriously limit how much local ethics commissions can fine violators of an ethics code. In fact, the language is so vague, many lawyers insist that local ethics commissions can't fine at all. State legislators, most of whom are former local government legislators, don't want to let local ethics commissions get out of hand.

Texas law prevents local ethics commissions not only from having teeth, but even from investigating violations. This makes it very easy for local politicians to create weak ethics commissions as mere window dressing.

Update below (Aug. 20, 2009)
Is the value of a gift given to a government official its fair market value or what the official gets out of it? For example, if you give an official a sportscar worth $40,000 and he only drives it ten times a year, is its value $40,000 or the cost of renting a car ten times a year? If you give an official a ticket to a football game and she leaves after the first half, is the value half the ticket or its full price?

One of the principal reasons I have devoted myself to local government ethics is that the ethical habits of government officials and politicians are usually formed at the local level. Politicians who become accustomed to a poor local ethics environment bring their values to state and federal government.

The saddest side of this is that many politicians learn at the local level that running on an anti-corruption platform is a good way to get elected, but that once elected, ethics reform only makes enemies. They also learn that few people notice the difference between window dressing and true ethics reform. It is no wonder that the most corrupt politicians began their careers as anti-corruption activists, and that the knowledge that anti-corruption platforms win races works at every level.

There's a lot of talk about the lack of government ethics in Albany, New York State's capital, but not much about the state of government ethics in the city of Albany itself. In July, the Albany Times-Union ran a long article on the mayor and the police chief's relationship with the city's largest developer. It also noted that the city council is considering an ethics code for the city (attached; see below), which currently has little more than a financial disclosure law (click and go to Chapter 54).