making local government more ethical
According to an article yesterday in the Rockdale Citizen, Rockdale County, GA's county commission is having a debate on how to select its three-member ethics board and its alternates. Unfortunately, it's a debate that is being waged with no reference to best practices and almost no outside professional input. It's as if a debate about a construction project were to include little input from or reference to the work of engineers or planners. I point this out not because it is atypical, but because it is all too typical.

The last time I discussed contingency fee arrangements in local government contracting was 2007 (the focus then was on attorneys). A front-page story in today's New York Times shows clearly that I have not been giving this topic the attention it deserves.

Allegations have been made by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York (disclosure: I worked for this office as a law school intern back in 1977-78) that a New York City department and an IT contractor were engaged in defrauding Medicaid over a five-year period, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars. With respect to government ethics, the central paragraph of the article is as follows:
Nepotism is a difficult topic to get a hold of. It is the most generally accepted kind of ethical misconduct, most governments do not keep records (or, at least, public records) of familial relationships, and nepotism provisions are rarely enforced. For all of these reasons, the news media do not give nepotism much coverage. So in many governments, especially those with poor ethics environments, nepotism is common.

Kudos go to David Wickert of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for doing an investigative piece last weekend about nepotism in the metropolitan Atlanta area (Disclosure: I was interviewed for the article, and I am quoted in it).

Wickert writes, "In the last three years alone, five area city and county governments hired at least 770 relatives of current employees. Those hires took place as thousands of metro residents struggled to find work, raising questions about whether family ties trump good government."

There are several problems with the settlement the Massachusetts AG reached last week with a lobbying firm that the AG alleged had entered into an illegal contingency fee agreement with a hospital. According to the AG's press release, the lobbying firm would be paid a percentage of funds paid to the hospital pursuant to legislation the lobbyist would try to help get passed.

The Prosecutor
The biggest problem is the office that prosecuted the case. Because the state ethics commission is not given authority to pursue allegations under the lobbying code, such allegations become political footballs and undermine trust that they are being fairly pursued. In this case, the politics involves an elected official (the AG) who is running for governor and has received campaign contributions from members of the lobbying firm, including one $500 contribution weeks before the settlement was reached, according to a Boston Herald article this week.

I believe that the best solution to the problem of having lobbyists and others seeking special benefits from the government sitting on government advisory boards is to get rid of these advisory boards. Conflicts involving these boards are important because, although they are "merely advisory," their recommendations are often accepted, and their members are often selected (or seen to be selected) in order to reach a particular conclusion. The membership of such boards is difficult for well-meaning officials to balance so that the board's recommendations do not reflect the self-serving views of one side or one industry, usually one that has a financial interest in the outcome. Equally as serious, it appears to the public that the recommendations of these boards is biased. That is not a good basis for government decision-making.

In 2010, the Obama administration tried to solve this government ethics problem by prohibiting registered lobbyists from sitting on federal government advisory boards. The 130 lobbyists who sat on the 16 Industry Trade Advisory Committees (ITAC), which make recommendations concerning U.S. trade policy, filed a suit to have this prohibition declared unconstitutional. Their suit was dismissed by a federal district court, and the lobbyists appealed.

The appellate court decision in the case of Autor v. Pritzker (attached; see below) came out in January and, in response, this week the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) made a change in the policy (attached; see below) that will allow lobbyists to sit on advisory boards in their representative capacity (like employees for companies), but not in their individual capacity (as individuals who happen to be lobbyists).

The Stamford (CT) Advocate's Angela Carella wrote an excellent column on Saturday about a post-employment (also known as revolving door) situation in Stamford. Entitled "In Ethical Questions, Appearances Matter," the column looks at the many problems with a school board member taking a job with a company that manages the school board's construction projects. He resigned his position the day before he accepted the job.

When officials take jobs with businesses their agency oversees, they are seen as using their government service as a stepping stone to help themselves as well as the firms that do business with the government, a win-win deal for everyone but the public. The revolving door puts a question mark at the end of everything the official did in office: what was he giving away in order to get a personal reward? When he acted, advocated, and voted, was he thinking of his future or what’s best for the public?

One of Carella's most astute observations is that the situation was not cured by the school board member's decision not to attend a meeting where the school board voted on a 42% increase in the contractor's fee (partly to create the position the school board member has filled). One reason is that, despite withdrawing from the vote, he did not withdraw from participation in the matter. "[H]e had the opportunity in the months before — particularly as head of the Operations Committee that oversees [the contractor] — to influence board members' views of [the company's] performance as school facilities manager."