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Transparency vs. Fear
Saturday, April 5th, 2008
New York politicians are making life hard for ethical politicians. “Present yourself as ethical,” they are effectively telling them, “and everyone will be harder on you when you don’t live up to expectations. Better to create no expectations at all.”
This isn’t what the government ethics community wants to hear.
The new example of an ethical politician caught with her pants down is New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, as we learned from the front page of today’s New York Times.
According to the Times, “the Council budgeted millions of dollars for dozens of fictitious community organizations and used the money later for grants to favored neighborhood groups.” The classic slush fund wearing a clever mask.
Quinn, who called for ethics reform and transparency, did not start this practice, but she did not end the practice during her first year in office (she said she was only vaguely aware of such a practice). She says that she told her staff to end the practice last spring, but in the fall she learned that the slush fund was still in operation.
The article focuses on whether her story is true or not. But this is not the point. Why didn’t she make this practice public when she admittedly learned about it? That’s what transparency is all about. Trying to sweep a practice under the rug often means that the practice continues, often in another form. Just look at patronage in Chicago.
Whatever happens to Ms. Quinn, there is a good lesson to be learned here. If you find something in government you don’t like, let everyone know about it and make it almost impossible for the practice to continue. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. Quinn knew this, but she was afraid to turn her knowledge into action. She was afraid of scandal (and of tattling on her predecessors), and the result was a scandal worse than the one she would’ve had last spring, had she gone public with the slush fund. She doesn’t seem to have covered it up, but she didn’t uncover it either.
Director of Research, City Ethics