making local government more ethical
When the criminal justice system finds that government officials are involved in a conspiracy to pursue illegal conduct in an environment of fear and intimidation, they bring racketeering charges under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO). This is what happened with the Atlanta schools cheating scandal. According to an article in today's New York Times, six more educators pleaded guilty to being part of the conspiracy, bringing the total to 17. According to an article in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the original charges were brought in March of this year against 35 educators. The original investigation implicated at least 44 schools and 178 educators.

The same sort of environment exists at the center of ethical misconduct, but ethics programs have to be more creative in investigating and preventing it, and enforcing against it.

According to an article yesterday in the Seguin (TX) Gazette, there will be a perfectly ordinary local government ethics occurrence next Monday in Seguin, a town of 25,000 outside San Antonio: the city's ethics commission will meet in closed session to discuss a recently filed ethics complaint.

There doesn't seem to be anything wrong with this. But there are two serious problems here. One is that, according to the article, "the Ethics Commission generally meets only when an ethics complaint has been filed. The commission is required to hold an annual meeting in June to elect officers." Actually, the commission meets "when necessary to carry out its responsibilities." According to the city's website, the EC met only once each year from 2009 to 2012, all but once in June, to elect officers. In 2013, it doesn't appear to have met at all. In other words, the EC clearly does not have many responsibilities, and is not even being employed for the purpose of enforcement.

The second problem is that, according to the city attorney (who is both the city's ethics officer and the EC's counsel and staff), he cannot comment on the complaint because it doesn’t become public information until after it has been acted upon by the EC.

The Boss of the Ethics Director's Bosses
According to an article this week in the Free Times, an FOI lawsuit was filed against South Carolina's ethics commission, because its director had said that a letter informing the governor of an ethics violation had not been sent and had been destroyed, when in fact it was sent and did exist.

Not only does the governor appoint all EC members (making her the boss of those for whom the ethics director works) but, according to the article, the director consulted with the governor's private attorney before telling his staff attorney that her opinion (apparently the one in the letter) was uninformed. This relationship with the governor, plus the EC's lack of transparency, undermine the public's trust in the ethics program.

Sometimes, conflict of interest matters come disguised as election law matters. Most of the time, due to secrecy, laziness, or an inability to draw lines between the dots, no one recognizes the conflict of interest matter. But sometimes, someone gives the game away, and it becomes clear how inextricable the two areas can be.

According to an article in today's New York Times, the game in Nassau County, NY (pop. 1.3 million) was putting up a third-party candidate for county executive in order to take votes away from a major party candidate. One conflict matter was the arrest of a man who had not paid a $250 fine. Why was this a conflict matter? Because a tiny percentage of those who do not pay fines are ever arrested. This arrest was handled by three police officers, and occurred on a bus. It was clearly a case of preferential mistreatment.

In New York State, lawyers are once again insisting that they are an exception to ethics laws. The Moreland Commission, a special investigatory commission called by the governor and consisting of district attorneys and other law enforcement officials, has subpoenaed the employers of several state legislators. According to an article in the Democrat and Chronicle, most of the employers quickly complied with the subpoenas and provided the requested information. But at least two of the employers are law firms, and they do not want to comply.

Many people think that lawyers make the best ethics commission members. In fact, many ethics codes require that at least some members of an ethics commission be lawyers.

However, lawyers are the individuals most likely to have relationships and obligations that conflict with the obligations they have as EC members. For example, they often have relationships with elected officials, who are often lawyers themselves, as well as with clients who seek special benefits from the local government. And they often represent clients before their local government's agencies and bodies.

This last kind of conflict situation led to a complaint filed against a Woodbridge, CT EC member, according to an article in Monday's New Haven Register. The complaint alleged that a lawyer-EC member (1) represented the town's fire commission in a legal dispute with the town's inland wetlands agency, and (2) represented a client before the town's planning and zoning commission.

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