making local government more ethical

Maricopa County 1 - Local Government Association Officer-Campaign Contributions

Update: 9/30/09
I was asked to do a short interview on Phoenix's NPR station KJZZ yesterday, to provide a government ethics view on issues relating to the latest battle in the uncivil war among elected officials in Maricopa County, the county that includes Phoenix. My research into what is going on raised all sorts of interesting issues. I'll deal with them in multiple blog posts.

First, what happened. County Sheriff Joe Arpaio arrested County Supervisor (effectively council member) Don Stapley three days after a county attorney moved to dismiss charges against Shapley for numerous purgery counts relating to the filing of financial disclosure forms. The new counts, according to an article in the Arizona Republic, involve primarily (i) campaigning for officer positions in the National Association of Counties (NACo), a membership organization, including misuse of office and personal use of campaign contributions; and (ii) misrepresentations on a mortgage document, campaign finance reports, and a tax return. The great majority of the counts are felony counts.

One issue, which I had never thought of, is not part of the case, but its facts led me to think of it. According to the counts, one NACo campaign contribution was in the sum of $25,000, and fifteen others ranged from $3,000 to $24,999.

Pursuant to Arizona Revised Statutes §16-905, as recently updated, an individual can give a county candidate only $410 per election cycle. But when a county candidate runs for an office in a national association, there appears to be no limit. What a huge, wonderful loophole to campaign finance laws!

Of course, if there are good gift provisions in the county ethics law, such contributions from those doing business with the county would not be allowed. This is another reason why gift laws are an important complement to campaign finance laws.

Of course, according to its ethics handbook (page 5), Maricopa County does not appear to have a gift policy for elected officials, just for employees. State law only prohibits gifts to board members for services rendered, that is, tips.

Considering this loophole, state, regional, and national associations of local government officials should have express limits on contributions given to candidates for its offices, they should require disclosure, and they should prohibit contributions from anyone doing business with the local government. If these associations show leadership in government ethics by instituting best practices, these best practices may rub off on their members.

Update: 9/30/09
NACo did pass some campaign rules this year, after the Stapley campaign. But the only relevant rule is as follows: "candidates ... voluntarily agree to limit non-travel-related campaign expenses to no more than $25,000."

This means that Stapley could have spent far less than the $100,000 or so he is said to have raised, unless he used most of the money to travel around and visit other county officials with a vote. But he still could receive contributions from lobbyists and others doing business with the county far larger than those allowable under state law.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics