making local government more ethical
Yesterday, a felony complaint was issued against William Rapfogel, the CEO of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, a large nonprofit social service agency that received millions of dollars in grants and contracts from New York City, New York state, and the federal government. One of the charges is that the nonprofit made large campaign contributions to city and state candidates through its insurance company (and the company's officers and employees), using money from overcharges on insurance policies (part of this money also went, as kickbacks, to Rapfogel and others).

In New York State, nonprofits are not permitted to make campaign contributions. Nor is it legal for an individual or corporation to make campaign contributions through someone else (known as a "straw donor").

There is a great deal of misunderstanding concerning the difference between a conflict of interest and a gift. It appears that most people consider them two completely different things. In fact, they represent two kinds of conflicts, pre-existing conflicts and conflicts that are created by an event. The confusion between the two characterizes a situation that led to an ethics complaint in Los Angeles.

According to an article on the KPCC public radio site, from January to May this year, a son of interim general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety had a paid internship (while in law school) with the lead law firm representing the developer of a huge project known as the Millenium Towers. The complaint against the general manager characterized the issue as a conflict of interest, and two published reports of the matter do the same (but a comment does suggest it was a gift). However, the general manager was involved in the matter several months before his son was hired by the law firm. There was no pre-existing conflict or relationship, only the hiring of a family member after the law firm and general manager were already involved in the matter.

This blog has been closely following cases where the legislative immunity defense has been used in government ethics proceedings. This week, the same issue arose with respect to an open records proceeding in Wisconsin. According to an article posted on the Madison Isthmus site yesterday, Wisconsin's attorney general has argued in an open records proceeding that a state senator is immune from a suit based on the state's open records law throughout her term in office, pursuant to state constitutional provision Article IV, Section 15, which provides that members of the state legislature "shall not be subject to any civil process, during the session of the Legislature."

This is the third blog post on the West Palm Beach Community Redevelopment Agency (CRA) matter. This post considers the matter in the context of a wide range of problems affecting CRAs throughout southern Forida, which can be seen in reports in the area's newspapers and blogs. Several CRAs have also been investigated by various offices and commissions.

A CRA is, as described in the Lake County Fiscal Rangers blog, "A legal entity allowed by Florida law to be created usually by a city or county to divert normal future property tax revenue to a separate fund used for renovating older downtown or residential areas." The usual term for such areas is "blighted area." CRAs are not meant for development of normal business areas. They are meant for areas that are doing very badly.

On April 18, the Broward County inspector general filed a report on the "Gross Mismanagement" of public funds by the city of Hallandale Beach and its CRA. There is also a status report dated July 16. And just last month, the IG's office filed a memorandum on allegations relating to procurement violations by the Dania Beach CRA.

On April 17, the District of Columbia ethics board filed recommendations for ethics reform with the council (see my blog post on the recommendations). Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie has introduced a bill that includes some of these recommendations (attached; see below). On October 7, a hearing on the bill will be held by the council's Committee on Government Operations.

For the most part, only the ethics board's miscellaneous recommendations are included in this bill. These were among its best recommendations. But the ethics program needs more than changes here and changes there, especially changes focused on enforcement. It needs to put the essential elements of a government ethics program into place. It's good to see that there is a commitment to continuing improvement, but it's not clear that there is a vision in the District of what the ethics program should be or of what the priorities are.

Here are the most important changes in the bill, with my comments.

Here's a what-not-to-do scenario of a sort that is too rarely included in ethics training. And yet it's one that could save a lot of officials, as well as ethics programs, a great deal of trouble, and help maintain public trust in local government.

According to an article in Tuesday's Miami Herald, a Miami commissioner, who was pulled over for a traffic violation, called the police chief, who called the police officer's commander, who called the officer. The commissioner was let off with a warning, which is what the officer says he would have done anyway. In other words, it was an unnecessary interference with the justice system by a high-level city official. This kind of minor abuse of office happens all the time.