making local government more ethical

Government Ethics As a Double-Edged Sword

In the hands of politicians, government ethics can be wielded as a double-edged sword, as can be seen in recent events in Mandeville (LA), a city of 12,000 just across Lake Pontchartrain from New Orleans.

According to an article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, in October 2009 the city's mayor pleaded guilty "to defrauding his constituents by accepting lavish golf vacations from companies that did business with the city as well as using his campaign fund to pay gambling debts and other personal expenses."

A March 9 article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune portrays the two candidates for the remainder of the mayor's term jumping up and down to show how important they consider bringing ethics to their city government. And an article in yesterday's St. Tammany News shows the successful candidate making ethics training his first priority. His plans include a train-the-trainer program to teach officials and employees, with a focus on the council, how to follow the state ethics laws.

But in a flier sent out very late in the campaign, the successful candidate charged his opponent with unethical conduct, including voting on matters that benefited her husband's company, according to another Times-Picayune article. The charged candidate denied the charges (the article confirms aspects of her defense) and said she was going to file an ethics complaint with the state. This is not a good way to end an election focusing on government ethics.

Far more important than the mayoral candidate's charges is the fact that the council appears to have acted as an ally in the mayor's unethical conduct. According to a Times-Picayune article last June, the council awarded a sizeable no-bid contract to the firm that paid for the mayor's golf outing, over the objections of the future unsuccessful mayoral candidate, who called for public bidding.

The focus of the campaign for good government in Mandeville has been on the mayor's unethical conduct, but the fact is that rarely can one official act unethically without the active or tacit support of others.

As good as it is to see support for government ethics at the center of a mayoral campaign, the same campaign can just as easily misuse government ethics for selfish purposes, undermining the very trust government ethics is intended to create.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics