making local government more ethical

A 27-page Introduction to Local Government Ethics!


Government ethics is one of the most misunderstood topics among local government officials and employees, government attorneys, ethics reformers, public administration students, journalists, and even ethics commission members.
This is the fourth of four blog posts on Zephyr Teachout's excellent new book, Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin's Snuff Box to Citizens United (Harvard Univ. Press).

Extortion and Pay to Play
Teachout talks about the difference in the origins of bribery and extortion statutes, the first coming out of judicial rules (bribing judges), the second coming out of rules governing appointed or employed officials who use their position to require money from those the official is supposed to serve for free.

It's interesting that one rarely hears the word "extortion" in a government context anymore. The term "pay to play" covers one form of extortion, but it certainly seems less judgmental. Pay to play, because much of it is legal and it is done by elected officials rather than employees, is frowned upon, but often considered ordinary business, unlike bribery or extortion.

And yet, Teachout notes, extortion was, at first, more likely to be criminalized "perhaps because the power dynamic of an official extorting a citizen was more dangerous than a citizen bribing an official." But Teachout says that from the mid-18th century "the elements of bribery and extortion were increasingly fused."

This is the third of four blog posts on Zephyr Teachout's excellent new book, Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin's Snuff Box to Citizens United (Harvard Univ. Press).

Other Anti-Corruption Laws
Teachout is good at presenting laws as anti-corruption laws which are not usually considered this way. For example, the Seventeenth Amendment, which provided for the direct election of U.S. senators, ensured that they were more likely to be independent (at least until campaigns became very expensive). And antitrust laws were in part an attempt to prevent the creation of the sort of huge companies that are more easily able to control government officials. The Takings Clause, as well as the copyright and patents clause, were "intended as at least a partial limitation on the power to corruptly sell special property privileges."

We often forget about the Twenty-Seventh Amendment, which required that congressional salary raises take effect only at the beginning of the following session. Since politics has been professionalized, and incumbents tend to be re-elected, this doesn't amount to much anymore. But legislative salaries are still, along with government ethics laws, among the few situations where local legislators vote on matters that apply directly and specially to their personal interests.

An essay of mine has appeared in the new issue of the journal Public Integrity, a special issue entitled "Changing of the Guard: The 75th American Society for Public Administration Anniversary Symposium: Visions and Voices of Ethics in the Profession" (Fall 2014, Vol. 16, No. 4). Since the journal is published commercially, I am not permitted to share my essay with you. So I will do the next best thing:  review it and expand on what I wrote (without all the details and the academy-speak I was required to employ).

The title of the essay is "Missing Out: The Consequences of Academic Noninvolvement in the Reform of Government Conflicts of Interest Programs." The abstract is as follows:
When it comes to the reform of government conflicts of interest programs in the United States, everyone has been missing out due to the noninvolvement of academics. This paper seeks to explain the reasons for this noninvolvement, to consider the consequences, and to suggest what can be done.
I just finished reading a masterpiece of a novel about Nuoro, a town in Sardinia:  Salvatore Satta's The Day of Judgment, translated from the Italian by Patrick Creagh. It's a very wise, witty, and sad novel. Here are a few pearls of wisdom that shed light on local government ethics.

Although twenty years old and about the state level, Alan Rosenthal's The Third House: Lobbyists and Lobbying in the States (CQ Press, 1993) provides valuable food for thought about lobbying at the local level. This first of two posts looks at such topics as the importance of relationships to lobbying and what makes local lobbying so different.