making local government more ethical
Yesterday, two members of a New York City council member's election campaign were indicted on criminal charges brought by a special prosecutor, who was appointed in 2012. Read this December 2014 New York Law Journal op-ed piece by Brennan Center (NYU) Chief Counsel and longtime New York City Corporation Counsel Frederick A.O. Schwarz, which argues very well that this prosecution was wrongly pursued, replacing the investigation of the New York Campaign Finance Board, which runs the city's excellent public financing program (Schwarz chaired the board from 2002 to 2008). Before the charges were brought, Schwarz called for the special prosecutor to stand down and let the board investigate the matter.

Does the "broken windows" theory, as first stated in a 1982 Atlantic essay by George L. Kelling and James Q. Wilson, apply to government ethics? The theory says that, if small things like broken windows are ignored, people will think that no one cares and, therefore, they will break more windows and move on to more serious misconduct. It's about setting norms and sending signals.

Forget the misuse of this theory in policing, where individuals are arrested for small offenses, sending them into the criminal justice system when they should not be. The focus of the theory was on fixing windows, showing that people do care, and sending the message that good conduct is the community norm.

Isn't this what a good local government ethics program is supposed to do:  try to prevent and fix the small instances of ethical misconduct through training, advice, and disclosure, so that the big ones don't happen? A good ethics officer should dispose of reports and complaints of minor misconduct and misconduct that isn't covered by the ethics code by talking with the official and trying to get her to understand why what she is alleged to have done (whether or not she actually did it, whether or not there is an enforceable rule involved) might be harmful to the government organization and the community if it were to become (or remain) common.

According to an editorial in the Orange County (CA) Register this week, Orange County citizens will soon vote on an initiative that would make their county the second one to turn its campaign finance program over to the state's Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC). But the initiative's wording calls the FPPC "the ethics commission," which causes confusion, because many in the county, including a recent grand jury (see my blog post on this) as well as past grand juries, have called for a local ethics commission to be formed.

The editorial points out that the initiative's language is misleading, because ethics commissions — and there are many good ones in California — do far more than enforce campaign finance laws.

In a an op-ed in the Daily Kos last Friday, Janos Marton — special counsel to New York state's recent Moreland Commission on state-level corruption — makes an excellent point about one of the problems involved in the criminal enforcement of government ethics :
There are several problems with the settlement the Massachusetts AG reached last week with a lobbying firm that the AG alleged had entered into an illegal contingency fee agreement with a hospital. According to the AG's press release, the lobbying firm would be paid a percentage of funds paid to the hospital pursuant to legislation the lobbyist would try to help get passed.

The Prosecutor
The biggest problem is the office that prosecuted the case. Because the state ethics commission is not given authority to pursue allegations under the lobbying code, such allegations become political footballs and undermine trust that they are being fairly pursued. In this case, the politics involves an elected official (the AG) who is running for governor and has received campaign contributions from members of the lobbying firm, including one $500 contribution weeks before the settlement was reached, according to a Boston Herald article this week.

According to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle last week, Oakland's council approved an amendment to the city charter, to go before voters in November, that would increase the authority of the city's ethics commission and provide it with the funds it needs to do its job. Congratulations to the council for what is, in some ways, an excellent reform package.

This ethics reform process began with a June 2013 civil grand jury report, which called for giving the city's ethics commission more authority to enforce ethics laws, and more resources with which to do it. Then, in May 2014, a working group of individuals mostly from good government-oriented civic organizations filed a report that made numerous ethics reform recommendations (see my blog post on it). The council quickly got to work on a charter amendment that contains some of the working group's recommendations.