making local government more ethical
An Ethics Matters newsletter from the Atlanta ethics officer is always a valuable occasion for those interested in local government ethics. The fall newsletter is no exception (to subscribe, e-mail This is the first of two blog posts about matters raised in the fall newsletter.

One newsletter article concerns a matter I wrote about in June. The matter involves a farewell dinner paid for by companies doing business with the department, with funds passed through the local chamber of commerce, which meant that no report was legally due on gifts made for the occasion.

Consultants often fall between the cracks of government ethics. They are contractors, but professionals rather than suppliers or construction companies, and they often act just like government officials, only they're not on the payroll. And yet the ethics rules that apply to government officials often do not apply to consultants. Often, ethics commissions don't even have jurisdiction over consultants.

An audit report done by the Los Angeles City Controller for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) just came out. It was commissioned after a consultant acting as a government employee allegedly funneled business to a company he co-owned. The school district, which had done a huge school construction program, wanted to see if there were other conflicts of interest. It calls its consultants CPs, that is, contract professionals.

According to an article in today's Wall Street Journal, business organizations are arguing that government employee unions have a conflict of interest that should prevent them from supporting candidates for office. "Public-sector unions have a guaranteed source of revenue—you and me as taxpayers," the executive director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce's Workforce Freedom Initiative is quoted as saying. The argument is that union dues come from government employees' salaries, which come from taxes.

Indirect benefits are one of the most problematic issues in government ethics. Usually, indirect benefits relate to an official's relationships, that is, where the official receives not a direct financial benefit, but satisfaction or an indirect benefit from a financial benefit going instead to a relative, employer, customer, or substantial political supporter.

But there are other indirect benefits, for example, benefits that go not to a business that employs the official or his spouse, but to the parent company of the business. The official may have no relationship whatsoever to the parent company, and yet not only is there an appearance of impropriety, but also there might very well be an indirect benefit to the official, because helping a parent is often a way of furthering one's career or indirectly helping the subsidiary you work for. Money is, after all, fungible. There's no telling if the benefit did not actually go to the subsidiary, using the parent company as a conduit.

Over-reaction to an alleged ethics violation can be as bad as under-reaction. In Bergen County, NJ, after one of seven freeholders (the county council), at his first meeting, voted to continue to keep county funds in a bank owned by the parent of the company he works for, an ethics complaint was filed and then the county administrator called on all county offices to take their money out of the bank, according to a post yesterday on the PolitickerNJ blog.

I chose to specialize in local government ethics because this is where it all starts. This is where the individuals who become our representatives experience their first unethical environment, become team players, learn the rules of the game, and begin to feel a special entitlement.

One good thing about election time is that we sometimes get the back stories of individuals running for higher office. We get to see how they started. One such individual is Carl Paladino, a candidate for governor of New York State.

A Local Developer Regulating Local Development
According to an editorial in today's New York Times, although Paladino "was an owner of several downtown parking lots [in Buffalo], he won a seat on the city’s parking board, resigning in 1994 amid charges of conflicts of interest. He still serves on the board of the nonprofit corporation [Buffalo Civic Auto Ramps, Inc. (BCAR)]  that manages parking lots for the city."