making local government more ethical
The concept of a conflict of interest is sometimes stretched far beyond what government ethics laws say, usually by those making accusations against government officials. But here is an example where a respected judge stretched the concept even further. It comes from a decision by Judge Friendly in Green v. Board of Elections of the City of New York, 380 F.2d 445 (2d Cir., 1967).

According to a Washington Post article this weekend, U.S. Senators Conrad and Dodd were cleared by the Senate Select Committee on Ethics with respect to the senators' membership in Countrywide Financial's VIP mortgage program. The committee concluded that the senators were given special treatment, but that others were given similarly special treatment and that the senators did not benefit financially. But the committee criticized them for their lack of concern for the appearance of impropriety and for their apparent lack of curiosity concerning the VIP program.

Local governments do a lot of business with banks, and banks would logically want to give some officials special treatment. Officials who are in any position to influence which banks get local government business should refuse such special treatment, whether they would benefit financially or not, and should disclose their dealings with banks (including those that do not do business, but might seek to in the future), so that there is no question the relationship is above board.

John Hazlehurst's observation on the Colorado Springs ethics commission's dismissal of a complaint against the mayor is valuable enough to deserve a separate blog post, rather than a mere update to my original post on this topic.

An important issue involved the mayor's insistence that, as an investment adviser, he could not disclose the names of his clients. This means that, effectively, he could not fulfill his city's conflict of interest requirements; his professional confidentiality obligation overrode the law.

Hazlehurst takes a strong position on this:  "The Mayor can either serve his employer, or the people of this city.  He can’t just walk a tightrope, and pretend to serve both.  If his employment is of such a nature that he can’t reveal possibly conflictual actions, he should resign either from UBS or from elected office."

People frequently belittle government ethics reforms as meaningless window dressing intended to make politicians look like they're being ethical, something I have said myself in certain contexts. Yet it is worth reading an extreme view of this, which oddly comes from a journalist writing a blog that takes "an evangelical Christian viewpoint."

Chicago politicians are endlessly creative. A few weeks ago I wrote about an alderman on the zoning committee who pushed for zoning changes to help developers who used his wife as their realtor. It turns out that his boss, William J. P. Banks, head of the zoning committee, is going to have a retirement party. The party's guests are being asked to send personal checks for $200 (or more), according to an article in yesterday's Chicago Tribune.

Again, a very public federal conflict of interest matter provides valuable material relevant to local government ethics. This time it's former Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson, Jr.'s relationship with the firm he formerly headed, Goldman Sachs, the subject of a front-page story in Sunday's New York Times.

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