making local government more ethical
I've written several posts about individuals who have created fiefdoms (a D.A., a housing authority director, a city pension board attorney, the director of a council of local governments, and the CEO of a state university foundation), but none of them were union leaders. A large investigative piece in the New York Times today provides an excellent description of the fiefdom of the head of New York City's correction officers union.

Uniformed unions wield a disproportionate power in most local governments. One reason is that their support is often considered necessary to win an election. This gives them a great deal of leverage with elected officials. For one thing, mayors and local legislators rarely criticize the unions in public. For example, when in November, the mayor called for "a culture change" in the city's violent jail, he criticized the corrections department, not the union. In fact, in October, the mayor publicly praised the union president.

The Times investigation shows how many other ways the union president wields his power. The principal way is through intimidation. He allegedly walked into the office of the department's lead investigator and threatened her. And then she was replaced . . . with a childhood friend of the union president, whose brother had been on the union's executive board. A culture of violence against prisoners can derive from a culture of fear and cronyism in a fiefdom.

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.

In the last few years, one of the biggest topics in the general area of government ethics, including campaign finance, lobbying, and transparency, has been the effect of huge campaign contributions by corporations and billionaires, which has become increasingly doable pursuant to a series of U.S. Supreme Court decisions.

These decisions do not appear to have had as much effect at the local level as at the national and state levels. I did do one blog post a year ago on how local spending by an organization funded primarily by a couple of billionaires backfired. The same post also discusses the old-fashioned problem:  local union and business association expenditures.

According to an article that appeared this weekend in the Contra Costa (CA) Times, the oil company Chevron has given nearly $3 million to three "independent" committees that have supported Richmond candidates sympathetic to its local refinery (the city's largest employer) and opposed candidates critical of it, who had filed a suit against Chevron in 2013, related to safety issues. Although presented as coalitions "of labor unions, small businesses, public safety and firefighters associations," the committees have received only a few thousand dollars from the two associations.

Is this sort of massive campaign expenditure ostensibly to protect a financial investment corrupting? If so, in what way?

The former chair of the Venice in Peril Fund wrote a disturbing piece for the September 25 issue of the New York Review of Books about corruption in Venice. This corruption derived largely from a major project:  the building of flood protection barriers, known as MOSE. Although this project was larger than those in most cities, the misuse of funds, the failure to competitively bid, the false invoicing, the nepotism and the cronyism are no different. Similarly, the need for independent oversight is the same whether the project involves the building of a new school, a convention center, a transportation system, or a city dump.

Members of the Consorvio, the contractor, have been charged with (and some have confessed to) buying the support of "anyone they thought would further their cause." The founder of the Consorvio, who resigned a year ago after investigators found that he had made illegal payments, has said "that it was he who was behind the system of buying support and influence and granting contracts without an open bidding process."

In an article in the New York Times this Monday, the Robeson County (NC) district attorney described his predecessor's bullying ways, which are typical of those of an individual who heads a local fiefdom:
“He is a bully, and that’s the way he ran this office. People were afraid of him. Lawyers were afraid of him. They were intimidated by his tactics."
Nepotism is a difficult topic to get a hold of. It is the most generally accepted kind of ethical misconduct, most governments do not keep records (or, at least, public records) of familial relationships, and nepotism provisions are rarely enforced. For all of these reasons, the news media do not give nepotism much coverage. So in many governments, especially those with poor ethics environments, nepotism is common.

Kudos go to David Wickert of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for doing an investigative piece last weekend about nepotism in the metropolitan Atlanta area (Disclosure: I was interviewed for the article, and I am quoted in it).

Wickert writes, "In the last three years alone, five area city and county governments hired at least 770 relatives of current employees. Those hires took place as thousands of metro residents struggled to find work, raising questions about whether family ties trump good government."

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