making local government more ethical
On December 6, according to an article on the Chicago Talks website, Chicago mayoral candidate Rahm Emanuel promised that he would make many ethics reforms to “change the culture” of corruption and cronyism at City Hall.

Two months ago, a book was published called The Jersey Sting, by two Star-Ledger reporters, Ted Sherman and Josh Margolin. It provides the history of an enormous federal sting operation which led to the arrest of dozens of government officials, most of them from local governments, on July 23, 2009 (see my blog post of that date). It's a real page-turner that shows how things work and how easy it can be for anyone with money to make deals with elected officials, at least in New Jersey.

The actual sting operation is not really a local government ethics story, but rather a tale of an ethics environment that is so poor, criminal conduct is just waiting for the money to start it going.

If nothing else, this book should make it very clear to local government officials all over the country how valuable a good, independent ethics program is. The books shows very clearly what can happen when there is nothing to prevent an ethics environment from getting this bad.

Needless to say, last week's oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court in the Carrigan v. Nevada Commission on Ethics case, which I have been following over the past year, was the last oral argument of the term. Was this putting local government ethics in the caboose or saving the best for last?

In the oral argument, there is a great deal of interest for those interested in local government ethics.  Topics include the application of First Amendment free speech and association protections to conflict and withdrawal provisions, whether legislators may apply vague standards to themselves and their local government colleagues and, most important, the use of advisory opinions and EC decisions to interpret otherwise vague provisions and thereby make them enforceable.

Kerry Cavanaugh, a Los Angeles Daily News columnist, got it wrong when she started a recent column, "Here's another reminder that politicians are not like you or me. If I get caught taking inappropriate gifts or violating the company's ethics policy, I might be fired, suspended without pay or forced to open my wallet to pay the penalty. If a politician gets caught breaking the rules on the job, he or she can open a 'legal defense fund,' collect cash from supporters and special interests and pay the fine, without losing a dime."

It's worse than this. Even most elected officials don't have the network of contacts necessary to open a legal defense fund. But the mayor of Los Angeles, the subject of Cavanaugh's column, opened three such funds, one for each of three investigations, by the city ethics commission, the state ethics commission, and the district attorney.

And he did this right after settling with the city and state ECs on fines totalling $42,000.

I wish that a grad student somewhere would decide to do an exhaustive study of a poor ethics environment. Broward County, Florida would not be a bad choice as the subject of her research.

According to an article in the Miami Herald this week, a Deerfield Beach commissioner, formerly mayor and formerly a Broward County commissioner, is the 17th official in this southern Florida county to be indicted on ethics charges in the last five years. Only last month, I wrote about the 16th, the mayor of Tamarac, a city with its own rotten crop of oranges.

Update: May 14, 2011 (see below)

An ethics controversy in Hartford presents a perfect opportunity to show the difference between ethics and law, and the right way to approach financial disclosure requirements.

Here are the facts, as reported in two Jon Lender columns in the Hartford Courant Sunday and Monday. Since the mayor became a council member in 2006 (and even before that), his spouse has collected about $2,000 a month in federal Section 8 rent subsidies as the landlord for low-income tenants under a "housing choice voucher program" administered locally by the city.

The money is all federal money. The city's role is only to determine whether the apartment meets the standards of the Section 8 program and to give the money to the landlord.