making local government more ethical
Ethics charges are often not the end, but rather the beginning of a process to improve government ethics. Take a recent instance in Los Angeles.


Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? In English: Who will guard the guardians? This is a question many people ask about ethics commissions. But the question I would like to raise is, Is this the right question to ask?

One of the biggest differences between unethical conduct and criminal conduct by government officials is the matter of proving intent. For example, a bribe is nothing more than a gift to a government official where it has been proven that the official intentionally took a gift in return for certain conduct. In government ethics, taking a gift beyond a certain value is all that needs to be proven to show misconduct. The official's conduct, beyond accepting the gift, is irrelevant, as is the official's intent.

But what about knowledge? Clearly, if it can be shown that the official knew nothing about a gift, that an envelope containing $10,000 had been placed under his porch without his knowledge, it would not be considered receipt of a gift. But if the gift were given to his wife, and he insists she never told him about it, it's still an ethics violation.

After all the problems San Diego pension boards have had with conflicts of interest (see my blog post from November 2009), one would think they would be extra-sensitive to further conflicts. But, alas, not in this case.

The tendency of local government ethics codes to limit conflicts to financial interests is one of my pet peeves. A current matter in Tacoma shows the downside of this limited definition of interests that can conflict.

I've been meaning for a long time to take a long second look at the City Ethics Model Code provision on the revolving door that many officials walk through between government and firms that do business with government. It's a complex matter, and local governments as well as states with jurisdiction over local government ethics deal with it in a variety of ways. Revolving door, or post-employment, provisions vary from a single sentence to almost 1,500 words in the District of Columbia.