making local government more ethical
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.

A Hartford Courant editorial on Friday asked a question that is not asked enough, Why delay an ethics investigation until a criminal investigation is complete? Another such question that is not asked enough is, Why delay an ethics proceeding until a criminal proceeding is complete?

The editorial takes the position that an ethics investigation should go forward, despite the fact that a criminal investigation is ongoing. It makes some good points, which I have put in my own words below and, in some cases, added to:

Party Committee Members on EC
According to an article in the Hartford Courant this week, a Newington, CT mayoral candidate, and council minority leader, who has made ethics allegations against the incumbent mayor has chosen not to file an ethics complaint because, she says, two of the four members of the town's ethics board are also members of the opposing party's town committee, one of them the nominating chair of the committee.

This is a problem with many ethics commissions that are selected by high-level officials and have few if any limitations on who can be a member. Officials and party committee members on an ethics commission cannot be seen as being neutral with respect to the officials, especially elected officials, who come before them.