making local government more ethical

How to Paint Yourself into a Corner By Not Responsibly Handling Your Conflict Right Up Front

In March I wrote a blog post about a situation in La Crosse, Wisconsin where the mayor brought his father, who runs a refuse business, to meet with a county official about a county solid waste assessment. A council member sought advice from the city attorney rather than the city ethics board, and then the mayor said he would put the matter before the ethics board. His father's company has a refuse contract with the mayor's city.

First Ask for an Advisory Opinion That Doesn't Match the Facts
But according to a La Crosse Tribune article in May, the mayor asked the ethics board "whether it's appropriate to participate in discussions regarding a business he isn't employed by and doesn't have an ownership stake in." His request didn't mention the meetings with the county official, to which he brought his father. In other words, it was a request for advice on a hypothetical situation, when there was a different, real situation involved. This is extremely disingenuous, and the ethics board should have refused to give an opinion.

Second, Pooh-Pooh an Independent Report and Issue a False Apology
Instead of turning the matter wholly over to the ethics board, the city attorney asked a non-government attorney to make a report, "to avoid any appearance of bias," according to the Tribune article. The council member said that he would file a complaint with the ethics board if the attorney's report were to indicate an ethics violation. Isn't that exactly the role of the ethics board itself?

The third-party attorney's report came out on July 27. The attorney concluded that the mayor violated one of the Wisconsin conflict of interest statutes, and three provisions of the La Crosse ethics code. Later that day, according to an article in the Tribune, the mayor said, "This is the opinion of one attorney. This isn't really a black-and-white issue." But he said that he will forward the report to the district attorney and the attorney general, as the third-party attorney recommends.

According to another Tribune article, the mayor apologized the next afternoon "for the distraction created by an alleged ethical lapse but maintained that his opposition to a county solid waste study was in the best interest of La Crosse - and not his family's refuse business."

A Tribune editorial from early June shows that none of them — not the city attorney, the third-party attorney, the ethics board, the district attorney, or the attorney general — was required to deal with this matter.

Third, Don't Listen to Good Editorial Board Advice
Here's what the editorial board said in June:
    Harter clearly recognized during his campaign for mayor that he had to promise that he'd avoid the obvious conflict of interest that his ties to Harter's Quick Clean-up could pose. He acknowledged that potential conflict of interest during an Tribune editorial board meeting. But he was suddenly unable to recognize such a conflict once in office.

    This issue has dragged on for months and could have ended with a simple reset by the mayor: Mea culpa - and I recognize that the correct "level of involvement" in things garbage is zero involvement.

    After this issue became a story, and the subject of a column on this page, Harter said that even his father had asked which hat Matt was wearing. Here's a tip, mayor: If your father has to ask, it should set off an alarm that there's probably a conflict.
It's Too Late, Baby, Now It's Too Late
A Tribune editorial this Sunday said, "The mayor screwed up. He should apologize fully and mend his ways. His critics should give him the benefit of the doubt - he's an inexperienced guy who stepped in it, embarrassingly badly - and his fans should acknowledge that even good guys can make mistakes. Then he and the city council should move on to the real work."

But sadly it's too late for this. It's too late because state conflict of interest violations are felonies. Had the mayor admitted his wrongdoing right up front, there would have been no report and, most likely, no interest in criminal prosecution. An admission now is far more difficult. By not dealing responsibly with a conflict he knew existed, and then by dealing with it disingenuously when it became an issue, the mayor has painted himself into a corner. He might even have ended his short political career (he's only 25).

Let this be a warning to politicians, whether green around the gills or old and crafty. Not only is it best for the public to deal responsibly right up front with conflicts you may have, but it's best for you, as well. You might get away with ignoring a conflict, but then again, you may not. When you don't, you have only yourself to blame, no matter how much those who bring the conflict to light may be out for blood.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics