making local government more ethical
Six years ago, I wrote a blog post on apology (including full disclosure) in the medical context. Today's New York Times' "Invitation to a Dialogue" letter from a hospital executive takes this issue a step further to a consideration of the value of individual punishment vs. institutional change. The lesson he provides is one that is important to government ethics, as well.

Court decisions, especially when combined with criminal enforcement of ethics violations, can be very harmful to local government ethics. The court in a Monterey County case involving a serious §1090 conflict of interest matter that officials were not only aware of, but appear to have helped create, has used two recent California court decisions to limit prosecution to just one official. Recently, the official's last-ditch effort to dismiss the charges on the basis of an entrapment argument failed, according to an article in yesterday's Monterey Herald. In fact, a judge barred the official from calling anyone, including his colleagues, to testify in a preliminary hearing on the entrapment defense.

Yesterday's blog post discussed the law giving California's Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) authority over §1090 of the state code, which deals with contract-related conflicts of interest and applies to both local and state officials. Knowing little about this section, which stands outside the state's ethics code (known as the Political Reform Act), I did a little research into it. It's an interesting provision that has received some interesting interpretations. Here is §1090:
Members of the Legislature, state, county, district, judicial district, and city officers or employees shall not be financially interested in any contract made by them in their official capacity, or by any body or board of which they are members. Nor shall state, county, district, judicial district, and city officers or employees be purchasers at any sale or vendors at any purchase made by them in their official capacity.
No Contract Where There's a Conflict
The language that stands out is "by any body or board of which they are members." This refers to the making of contracts. But one wonders how this language is applied. According to the relevant section of an ethics training course on the Attorney General's website, "If a member of a multi-member body with contracting power has a financial interest in a contract, section 1090 generally provides that the contract cannot be made even if the member has disqualified himself or herself from actually participating in the contract."

Some good news from California, which takes an odd, hybrid approach to local government ethics. It has a state ethics commission (the Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC)) that has limited authority over local officials in the areas of conflicts of interest and campaign finance. And the state has many local government ethics programs, which are all over the place in terms of quality and areas over which they have authority.

The first piece of good news is that the FPPC has been given the authority, with respect to Government Code §1090, (1) to provide written ethics advice and (2) to civilly or administratively enforce violations. Section 1090 deals solely with conflicts of interest involving contracts. In the past, there has only been criminal enforcement of this section by district attorneys or the Attorney General, and advice could be given only with respect to the provisions in the Political Reform Act. For some crazy historical reason, §1090 was never made part of the Political Reform Act, which is the state's principal ethics code.

There is usually another side of the coin, and that other side is often ignored in drafting a government ethics code. The other side of the nepotism coin came up recently in an ethics proceeding in Stamford, CT.

According to an article this week in the Stamford Advocate, a former finance board member filed an ethics complaint against a former colleague, who still sits on the finance board, for intervening to help a cousin, and member of her household (which in Stamford is considered "immediate family"), who is a city employee.

One piece of evidence provided by the complainant is that the respondent e-mailed the mayor after learning that the complainant, then a finance board member, was seeking to reorganize the department where the respondent's cousin worked, which might have meant the cousin losing her job. The e-mail included the following:
On April 17, the District of Columbia ethics board filed recommendations for ethics reform with the council (see my blog post on the recommendations). Council member Kenyan R. McDuffie has introduced a bill that includes some of these recommendations (attached; see below). On October 7, a hearing on the bill will be held by the council's Committee on Government Operations.

For the most part, only the ethics board's miscellaneous recommendations are included in this bill. These were among its best recommendations. But the ethics program needs more than changes here and changes there, especially changes focused on enforcement. It needs to put the essential elements of a government ethics program into place. It's good to see that there is a commitment to continuing improvement, but it's not clear that there is a vision in the District of what the ethics program should be or of what the priorities are.

Here are the most important changes in the bill, with my comments.