making local government more ethical
Many government ethics professionals don't like waivers. I think they're valuable. Basically, they are requests for an advisory opinion in which the official recognizes that certain conduct would constitute an ethics violation, but wants a determination that he can engage in the conduct due to special circumstances. The result of such a determination is the creation of a new, narrow exception to a rule. This is a good way of preventing bad unforeseen consequences of a rule. But waivers must be given only after a public hearing.

The value of a government ethics waiver is completely different when it is not an independent ethics officer or commission who makes the determination, and when there are no special circumstances that require a new exception. In fact, a waiver given by one or more officials without a very good reason sends the message that officials won't apply ethics rules when they don't feel like it or will favor certain of their colleagues (and, if they are in need of a waiver in the future, themselves). This makes a mockery of an ethics program and undermines the public's trust.

According to a post in the Crain's Insider blog last week, the New York City council hired as deputy general counsel a lobbyist whose firm recently had been the council speaker's campaign consultant (the speaker is the leader of the NY city council, elected by its members). This raises an interesting conflict issue relating not only to hiring, but also to firms that both provide campaign services and lobby local government officials.

When a firm advises a local government official with respect to a campaign, this creates a special relationship — personal, business, and political — that creates the impression that anything that is done for the firm, its members, or its clients involves some level of preferential treatment based on this relationship. It can appear that an official owes her election to such a firm, and she can feel this way about it, too.

There is nothing more natural and, in most circumstances, ethical than a mother doing her best to help her son when he is in trouble. And yet, in most jurisdictions, there are multiple government ethics laws that prohibit this very conduct when the mother is a government official. This is as good an example as there is of the fact that government ethics is not about ethical conduct in general, but rather about government fiduciaries dealing responsibly with their conflicts of interest.

According to an article in the Eagle Tribune last week, a hearing was held by the Massachusetts ethics commission regarding a complaint against a member of the Groveland, MA board of selectmen (its governing body). She was alleged to have used her position to try to help her son, a Groveland police officer who had been placed on administrative leave.

According to the EC's press release, this otherwise commendable conduct might have violated four different ethics provisions:

A conflict situation in my state of Connecticut is instructive regarding a basic concept of government ethics, as well as a basic concept of legislative immunity.

Legislators insist that they require immunity because their motives in making decisions cannot be questioned outside their body. Government ethics, on the other hand, does not consider motive, only conduct and relationships. This is one of the principal reasons why I argue that legislative immunity does not protect legislators from government ethics enforcement.

But when the talk is not about legislative immunity, it turns out to be perfectly okay to discuss a legislator's motives, as well as others' motives.

Background
According to a Jon Lender column in the Hartford Courant this weekend, (Disclosure: the Courant occasionally hires me to write op-ed columns on government ethics issues), the state's house minority leader made a strenuous argument against a bill requiring increased financial disclosures by for-profit nursing homes. His law firm lobbies for the Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities, which opposed this bill.

Another day, another grand jury report recommending government ethics reform. This report (attached; see below) comes from Orange County, NY, a county northwest of New York City, whose biggest town is Newburgh and whose most famous towns include the very different Tuxedo and Kiryas Joel.

The report criminally exonerates the county legislator who is its subject, because he did a couple things right:  he sought ethics advice from the ethics board, and he disclosed his employment with a county contractor to the county legislature's attorney (who responsibly told the legislator to seek an ethics opinion from the ethics board) and other county officials, and in his annual disclosure statement. But the report does recognize that there are still problems which should be considered by the ethics board, including (1) the legislator's vote on a project when he was in talks about employment with a contractor working on the project, and (2) the legislator's signing in to a meeting, which was chaired by a county official, as a county legislator, and then soliciting business for the contractor he had been employed by.

Despite its exoneration of the legislator, the grand jury — like many grand juries and unlike most local legislatures — took a look at the county's ethics program as a whole, making recommendations that went beyond those that would prevent the particular misconduct it was considering. However, it still made piecemeal recommendations, without any research into best practices (there is mention only of some state and nearby practices, and government ethics programs in New York state are not, on the whole, very good). Here is a list of its most important recommendations:

As we know, the devil's in the details. In government ethics codes, this means the language. In the case I will look at here, the devil's in the verbs.

According to an article on the WTSP-TV website last week, a Florida state senator who lobbies for a sports team seeking taxpayer subsidies relating to payments on its sports arena voted on a stadium/arena subsidy bill. After the TV station asked the senator about his vote and lack of disclosure of a conflict, the senator "received a written opinion from the Senate's special counsel, which indicated he did not need to file a disclosure because, while his client could benefit from the legislation, 'private gain or loss to your principal would be speculative.'"