making local government more ethical
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).

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."