making local government more ethical
Two days ago, I wrote about a Louisiana lawyer-legislator who is arguing that disclosure rules should not apply to lawyers, because the practice of law is regulated by the state supreme court. The story behind an indictment in New Jersey this week makes a strong argument for applying disclosure rules to lawyers, as they are in California and North Carolina, only better.

Lawyer-legislators are extremely creative people. The latest use of their creativity is to argue that ethics boards cannot require disclosure of a conflict of interest that arises from legal representation because they have no jurisdiction over the practice of law. Only the state Supreme Court has that jurisdiction.

The lawyer-legislator in this matter is state senator Rob Marionneaux of Louisiana, a state whose ethics code applies to local governments. According to an article in the Baton Rouge Advocate, he said that "the reporting requirement in state law does not apply to lawyers who are legislators. 'The practice of law is regulated by the Supreme Court.'" According to a more recent Advocate article, the senator's lawyer, his law partner, said that "the ethics board is trying to inject itself into the practice of law." For background on this matter, see this article in the Post South.

Update: October 8, 2010 (see below)

There's a fascinating ethics controversy going on in Stamford, CT which raises a number of issues involving time limits, the enforcement of declarations of policy, intimidation, and the roles of ethics commissions and inspectors general.

Two years ago, I wrote a blog post about a book by Lewis Hyde entitled The Gift, which had a lot to say, philosophically, about gift-giving and -receiving, an issue of relevance to government ethics. I just finished Hyde's book Common As Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership, which just came out last month from Farrar Straus. It's a fantastic book about the philosophical bases of copyright and patent law (I used to be in book publishing), but Hyde says a lot that applies to the philosophical bases and the origins of government ethics, as well.

Intellectual property law, as the book's title implies, deals with a sort of commons, a cultural commons. To define and preserve a commons, one must distinguish between what is private and what is public. It is because the private-public distinction is central to government ethics that the philosophy discussed in this book, especially the philosophy of America's founding fathers, is relevant to us.

In Milwaukee County, according to an article in Sunday's Journal-Sentinel, a county supervisor is seeking to add to the county ethics code a confidential information provision that would not limit the prohibition to what is common in ethics codes: information divulged for someone's benefit.

As I've written before (1 2), this is not a government ethics issue, because there is no conflict between the public interest and the official or employee's personal interest. In fact, there are many situations where divulging confidential information is in the public interest, for example, in the course of blowing the whistle on improper conduct by other officials or employees.

Those who, like me, are fascinated by Vernon, California, the ultimate company town, with an ethical environment that breaks nearly all the rules, will be happy to know that it was given a long treatment in a front-page article in Sunday's Los Angeles Times. There are no new revelations, but a few good quotes.

From state Assemblyman Hector De La Torre:  "It's like they said of Mexico — it's the perfect dictatorship because they have elections. Vernon is the perfect corporation because it pretends to be a city."