making local government more ethical
Mike DeBonis's article in the Washington Post last week describes an operatic ethics matter, with several twists and complications, with dramatic cries of innocence mixed with scathing accusations of guilt. The article is certainly more exciting than this blog post, which focuses on issues raised by the the Notice of Violation, dated February 6, (attached; see below). I hope the post will, at least, be enlightening.

Here are the basic facts, as stated in the Notice of Violation. In 2006, D.C.'s chief administrative law judge entered into a business relationship with a woman to purchase investment properties in the D.C. area. Both principals put money into the enterprise over a period of years. In 2010, the judge hired her business partner as the general counsel of her government office, "without posting/advertising the position or interviewing anyone else for the position."

What role does humor play in a government ethics program? It looks like this is the principal issue in a Broome County, NY ethics case. According to an article put up yesterday afternoon on the Gannett Pressconnects website, the chair of the opposing party's county committee has written a letter to the county ethics board regarding the county executive wearing a sheriff's office uniform to the county sheriff's campaign event (the sheriff was not wearing his uniform, because he is not allowed to for campaign purposes).

The complainant insists that this constitutes the "use of public property for a blatantly partisan political event." The sheriffs association said the county executive didn't impersonate an officer because there was no intent to imply the exercise of police authority. Translation: it was done in fun.

Here is a concrete example of the problem of allowing local government attorneys to provide ethics advice that protects local officials, a problem that Florida state senator Jeff Clemens and the Florida League of Cities want to harden into state law in SB 606 (see my recent blog post for a discussion of the problem).

According to an article in yesterday's Sun-Sentinel, the state ethics commission found probable cause that a county sheriff had failed to report gifts from a contractor and campaign supporter, but recommended that no action be taken because the sheriff had relied on advise of counsel. That counsel was general counsel for the property appraiser's office, who happens to be the son of a county commissioner and whom the sheriff happened to have since made his office's general counsel. This government attorney told the sheriff to value the gift of a Bahamas cruise on the contractor's yacht (10 passengers, including the sheriff's and contractor's families) by how much it would cost to take a commercial cruise to the Bahamas. The actual cost was nearly four times the cost of a commercial cruise, and the experience was very different. On this basis, the sheriff paid the contractor a quarter of the actual cost, making the rest a gift.

Florida Senate Bill 606 (attached; see below) is one of the worst ethics reform bills I have ever read. But it is far worse than the words it consists of. What makes it worse is that, with respect to laws that affect local officials, it is largely the work of the Florida League of Cities (this was confirmed to me by representatives of both the League and state senator Jeff Clemens, the bill's sponsor). It is work like this that leads me to question whether local government associations should be permitted to lobby on matters involving government ethics. This issue will be dealt with in the last of the blog posts related to the bill.

Penalties on the Complainant
It's hard to know where to start. So I'll start with the most insidious proposal — an additional penalty on complainants — because here the League of Cities has shown a level of cleverness that I have not seen elsewhere. Unfortunately, the League's cleverness has been employed to get around a 1988 decision striking down the very same penalty on complainants, based on First Amendment free speech rights.

A passing statement in yesterday's New York Times article on the continuously unfolding story of NJ governor Chris Christie's bullying led me to wonder why it is that indictments based on sting operations focus only on the government officials who give in to the sting's temptations. Not only is this not fair to the many officials who withstand the temptations, but it also gives a false picture to the public of the officials they elect.

Who should be allowed to file an ethics complaint? Certainly any citizen of the jurisdiction. But what about multiple citizens of the jurisdiction? Should an ethics commission exclude a complaint from them?

This is what happened recently in Brookfield, CT, according to an article in the News-Times. A petition signed by a few hundred people in town was sent to the city's ethics board, but the ethics board rejected it, insisting that complaints have to be filed on an official form signed by a particular individual. This makes no sense. A complaint signed by multiple individuals is a good way to protect individuals from retaliation and, therefore, make it more likely that ethics complaints will be filed. And a complaint signed by multiple individuals should be given more, rather than less respect. It shows that the community is very concerned about the matter.