making local government more ethical
"Wheeling" is a term I just discovered. The context is that NJ governor Chris Christie made a campaign promise to deal with "wheeling," and then failed to, according to a South Jersey Times editorial yesterday. Here's how the editorial describes the practice (many NJ local governments prohibit or limit contributions from their contractors):
It goes like this: Smith County has a fat consulting contract with Joe Blow Associates. Instead of giving $10,000 to the Smith County Republicrats, Joe Blow sends a $10,000 check to the Jones County Republicrats. Suddenly, a $10,000 “clean” donation from “Jones County Republicrats” appears in the Smith County incumbents’ campaign fund.
Here's a good-news story from Delray Beach, FL. But first the bad news. According to an op-ed by Rhonda Swan this week in the Sun-Sentinel, in 2012 the Palm Beach County inspector general "warned Delray that extending its contract with Waste Management until 2021 without seeking bids would violate state and city rules that require competitive bidding." The then city manager disagreed, and the city commission approved the contract extension.

Here's a good way to get around local government transparency laws. If you want an appointee's activities to remain secret, let him be hired by a private entity, give money to the private entity sufficient to pay his salary, and don't communicate with him via government-owned computers or smartphones.

You might think that this would only occur with relatively obscure individuals and entities, aides who can do dirty work that an agency wants to keep hush-hush, hired by a social service agency that is afraid of losing its grant unless it plays along. But the case that led me to write this post involved former Connecticut governor John Rowland (who resigned in 2004 and later did prison time for accepting free work on his house from a state contractor), the city of Waterbury, and a local chamber of commerce.

"The deep problem with the system was a kind of moral inertia. So long as it served the narrow self-interests of everyone inside it, no one on the inside would ever seek to change it, no matter how corrupt or sinister it became — though even to use words like 'corrupt' or 'sinister' made serious people uncomfortable, so Katsuyama avoided them. Maybe his biggest concern, when he spoke to city residents, was that he be seen as just another nut with a conspiracy theory."

This seems like a classic description of the problem citizens have when they understand institutional corruption in a city government and try to get others to understand it. But I changed one term: "city residents" was actually "investors," and this is a quote from Michael Lewis's new book, Flash Boys, which was excerpted in this week's New York Times Magazine.

Reading this excerpt, about the way high-frequency traders took "advantage of loopholes in some well-meaning regulation introduced in the mid-2000s ... simply so someone inside the financial markets would know something that the outside world did not," kept making me think of institutional corruption in local governments. The biggest difference is that it is the local officials themselves who draft loophole-ridden, rules and regulations (or fail to fill the loophones, or simply follow unwritten rules). Even when the rules were originally "well-meaning," they often become the basis for unfair advantages given to certain contractors, developers, grantees, and regulated businesses that, in turn, provide benefits to the officials, their families, their businesses, and their business associates.

The subject of Margaret Sullivan's Public Editor column in yesterday's New York Times is the corrupting influence of journalists getting too close to their sources. In other words, in the language of C.J. Roberts, "ingratiation and access." With respect to local government ethics, the subject would be the corrupting influence of relationships between local officials and those seeking special benefits from the local government.

The most relevant quote in the column comes from Jesse Eisinger, a financial reporter for ProPublica (I wrote about one of his columns just two months ago). He constantly reminds himself why sources share information with him: "It's not because I'm good looking or a nice person. They're all talking to push an agenda."

The big news in the government ethics world this week is C.J. Roberts' opinion in the McCutcheon case. The biggest problem with this opinion is its author's continuation of an unrealistic picture of how large campaign contributions work. Roberts acts as if access were not an important goal, and as if the only problematic relationship between contributor and elected official involved quid pro quos. A more accurate view is that because contributions are one aspect of relationships based on ongoing gift-giving and ongoing access and benefits, those who seek access and special benefits from a government should not be able to make large gifts.

If Roberts' view of problematic relationships were applied to government ethics laws, there most likely wouldn't be very many rules left standing, because government ethics, like campaign finance, exists in a non-quid pro quo world.

Although this decision applies only to federal campaign finance laws, past campaign finance decisions have been applied at all governmental levels. Therefore, it is problematic for local government ethics that a statement near the end of the Roberts opinion presents a picture of campaign contributing that bears little relationship to what occurs at the local level: