making local government more ethical
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."

Ferguson, MO — where Michael Brown was recently killed by a police officer, and the police department's first reaction was to protect the officer and keep the facts secret — is an unusual case of a local government where a scandal is likely to actually increase rather than decrease citizen participation in government.

There is an interesting column today in Vox about why a primarily black city has a nearly all-white government. The article quotes Prof. Jeff Smith, formerly a St. Louis-area state senator, explaining the situation (which he says is relatively common to suburbs where minorities have moved in recent decades) as follows:
Longtime white residents have consolidated power, continuing to dominate the City Councils and school boards despite sweeping demographic change. They have retained control of patronage jobs and municipal contracts awarded to allies.

The North County Labor Club, whose overwhelmingly white constituent unions (plumbers, pipe fitters, electrical workers, sprinkler fitters) have benefited from these arrangements, operates a potent voter-turnout operation that backs white candidates over black upstarts. The more municipal contracts an organization receives, the more generously it can fund re-election campaigns. Construction, waste and other long-term contracts with private firms have traditionally excluded blacks from the ownership side and, usually, the work force as well.
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."

When city and county contractors and their lobbyists don't follow the rules, it's difficult to catch them, because few cities have an oversight office that investigates on its own initiative. Without such a program, communities depend on federal and state criminal enforcers who focus on bribery and kickbacks.

It is the FBI and a federal grand jury that did the job in Dallas County which, unlike the city of Dallas, has no ethics program, just an aspirational code. In fact, it has two aspirational codes, only one of which is linked to on the county website; the one linked to is the National Association of Counties Code of Ethics (attached; see below); there is also a short ethics code in the county Code of Ordinances (Sec. 94-51). But there is no local ethics program.

According to a press release from the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas, a federal grand jury has returned a 109-page indictment charging a long-time Dallas County commissioner (Price), his chief of staff, a corporate lobbyist, (Nealy) and a corporate consultant (Campbell) with a conspiracy that involved nearly $1 million going to the commissioner (in the form of money, land, and cars (one of the four cars, a New 2005 BMW 645Ci, cost $100,000)), while the commissioner supported the bids of the lobbyist's clients and provided them with confidential information that gave them a "strategic advantage" over other bidders.

A recent action by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) against the city of Harvey, IL, a poor city of 30,000 just south of Chicago, deals with a different sort of fiduciary duty than the usual government ethics case. In a complaint dated June 24, 2014 (attached; see below), the SEC alleges that the city's comptroller acted as financial adviser in three bond issues for a hotel development, diverted some of the funds to himself, and also diverted funds to the city's general fund. The comptroller is acting as financial adviser for a 2014 bond offering, which the SEC is trying to prevent through a court restraining order.

The action is based on the city's fiduciary duty to disclose to investors how bond proceeds will be used, as well as the risks associated with investing in the city's bonds (but the term "fiduciary duty" is not actually used in the complaint). This is part of the SEC's promised crackdown on disclosure failures related to municipal bonds. Alternatively, the complaint alleges fraud and the making of false and misleading statements.