making local government more ethical
The word "fiefdom" does not appear in the U.S. Justice Department's March 4 report on Ferguson, MO's police department, but that is what the report describes. What is unusual about the fiefdom is that it is controlled by the council, not by an executive or attorney. It is far from a classic fiefdom, which is why Ferguson has once again attracted my attention. One thing that is especially disturbing is that many of the same attributes appear in other cities and towns in the area (see the report's final recommendation). This is a form of institutional corruption that appears to have become the, or at least a, norm in St. Louis County. It should come as no surprise that St. Louis is in the minority of large cities without a government conflicts of interest program, and that the state's municipal ethics program is weak.

Across the country, requests for citizen complaints provide not only for complaints, but also for commendations. I happened to notice one of these when I was in the nation's capital this weekend, and it got me wondering why this is not done with respect to government ethics complaints and hotline reports.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if ethics commissions were to ask citizens to file commendations regarding government officials' responsible handling of conflicts of interest situations? First, this would require the ethics commission to describe what it means to handle such situations responsibly, which is the core of government ethics, but is too often ignored. Second, this would emphasize that a healthy government ethics environment can be equally, or even better, created by the recognition of exemplary conduct than by enforcement against misconduct (even though the latter is also necessary).

The arrest of New York state senate majority leader Sheldon Silver points to an ongoing institutional problem that is not limited to New York state:  the law firm as the perfect place to launder money. The reason for this is that lawyer-client confidentiality, at least as it is often practiced, allows a law firm, and the public office holders who are part of or do work for it, to keep its clients, its services, its receipts, and its payments secret.

According to the complaint, dated January 21, Silver has been accused of using his position to give himself millions of dollars in kickbacks and bribes, most of which went through two law firms with which he is affiliated. What were called "attorney referral fees" came from clients with substantial business before the state and, according to the complaint, "not as a result of legitimate outside income Silver earned as a private lawyer." Even legitimate and semi-legitimate outside income earned from those seeking special benefits from the government can be problematic.

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?