making local government more ethical
When a city or county attorney's office does not represent the ethics commission, should that office play any role in an ethics proceeding? I don't believe it should.

But that is what happened recently in Cobb County, GA, according to an article last week in the Marietta Daily Journal. After an ethics complaint was filed against four of the five county commissioners, the county attorney quickly filed a response "asking the ethics board to dismiss the complaint, which she called unfounded and based on non-legal claims."

Is local government ethics enforcement appropriate for local legislators? This question is currently being asked in Sarasota County, FL and Wyandotte County/Kansas City, KS. A key to whether this is the right question is who is asking the question. In both cases, it is local legislators who have been respondents in ethics enforcement proceedings, and some of their legislative colleagues.

Many local legislative bodies have ethics committees, even where there is an ethics commission. The reason for these self-regulatory committees is that these bodies have their own codes of conduct that go beyond conflicts of interest, and which are enforced, discussed, and amended separate from the city or county's ethics program. Some local ethics programs consist of nothing more than a council ethics committee and code of conduct, but that situation is not the topic of this blog post.

Council ethics committees can be confusing. For example, this week Philadelphia magazine ran an article with the headline, "City Council Has an Ethics Committee! (But It Never, Ever Meets). Long live corrupt and contented Philadelphia." The ethics committee has apparently not met for 20 years, even though, according to the article, nine council members have been convicted over the past 32 years.

In a blog post ten days ago, I predicted that Florida state senator Joe Abruzzo, the sponsor of SB 1474, would realize that the newly amended bill would not do what he really wanted and make the appropriate changes, so that the amended SB 1474 would be consistent with HB 1315.

And so he did. He has drafted an amendment to the amended bill that makes it somewhat consistent with HB 1315 (the new amendment is attached; see below). The amendment is supposed to be taken up by the senate Community Affairs Committee on Tuesday, April 1.

According to Wikipedia, a Grand Unified Theory (GUT) is "a model in particle physics in which at high energy, the three gauge interactions of the Standard Model which define the electromagnetic, weak, and strong interactions, are merged into one single interaction."

It appears that the case of Michael Quinn Sullivan and his trio of organizations, Empower Texans PAC, Texans for Fiscal Responsibility (a 501(c)4) organization), and Empower Texans Foundation (a 501(c)(3) organization) may provide a Grand Unified Theory in the field of government ethics, bringing together the fields of campaign finance, lobbying, transparency, and conflicts of interest.

The story of state legislative interference with local government ethics programs in Florida continues with a newly amended bill in the state senate (SB 1474 is attached; see below), sponsored by senator Joe Abruzzo, whose antagonism to the Palm Beach County ethics program has been the subject of three City Ethics blog posts in the past year (audit of the Palm Beach County program, legislative committee call for suspension of the program, and possible involvement in Florida League of Cities' ethics reform proposals).

Since the state senate cannot pass rules that apply only to one local government ethics program, the bill would apply to all of them, including the Jacksonville program administered by City Ethics' president, Carla Miller.

The stated goal of the amended bill is to bring more due process to local government ethics programs. The stated problem is that the same people who find probable cause also determine whether an ethics violation has occurred. This appears at first blush to be a serious problem. Once an individual or body has determined probable cause that a respondent official has violated an ethics provision, he or it may be considered to have decided against the respondent and, therefore, be biased against him. Such an individual or body may argue before another individual or body that a violation has occurred, but should not make any further determination in the matter.

What a Probable Cause Finding Actually Means
However, as I told Sen. Abruzzo, this shows a misunderstanding of what it means to find probable cause. This finding, which is often misunderstood, does only one thing:  it allows the matter to proceed. It is less a determination or finding than a decision not to dismiss, because at least one allegation in a complaint appears to have enough validity to be considered. It is a decision to proceed from a preliminary investigation to a full investigation and, possibly, a hearing. In most jurisdictions, it is also a decision to make a matter public. But it is not a decision that a violation has occurred. It is only a decision that there is enough evidence not to dismiss the complaint without a hearing. It is the sort of preliminary decision that judges make on a daily basis, and yet are allowed to make final decisions on the merits, as well.