making local government more ethical

Regional Public Integrity Officers in New York State

Update: August 26, 2011 (see below)

At the same time there is talk of local government ethics reform in New York State, the new attorney general has his own plan for local government oversight. But it is all criminal in nature.

His idea is to place public integrity officers in all thirteen attorney general offices in the state, starting with Rochester. The new attorney general's predecessor, now the governor, founded the Public Integrity Bureau in 2007, with a mandate to investigate corruption, fraud, and abuse of authority.

The AG's goal is to partially decentralize the public integrity bureau, to bring it closer to local governments. It's interesting that the first officer will be placed in a region whose major city already has its own public integrity officer, albeit appointed by the mayor (the former mayor is now lieutenant governor). The office is part of the city's internal audit office.

According to an article in the Messenger Post, the AG has said, “We ... found a lot of the complaints are about local government. I want to make sure there is a place they can go. ... It’s really someone who brings us closer to the ground. I’m very committed to having more direct access to what people are thinking in places like Rochester.”

There are risks in having multiple local agencies with overlapping jurisdictions. How will the state and local governments work together in determining who will investigate? And will complainants shop around for the agency that will be most likely to do something, politically speaking? Will officials shop around for advice?

And where there is not a local ethics program, will having a local public integrity officer, even if only to oversee criminal investigations, make it less likely that an ethics program will be established? Will local government ethics be increasingly criminalized and centralized just at the time the bar association is calling for local government ethics reform?

According to a City Hall News article, the AG has said, "We have to make the connection between government corruption and the loss of funds.” But this connection does not have to be criminal. That is, there doesn't have to be criminal fraud for this connection to be made. A good local ethics program also saves government money. The AG should send this message out as well, and do what he can not to have his program act as an obstacle to local ethics reform.

Update: August 26, 2011
In a press release dated June 29, the Attorney General announced the appointment of 14 regional public integrity officers.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics