making local government more ethical
Update: February 3, 2010 (see below)

A NC Local Government Blog post yesterday made me aware that there have recently been some very public conflict of interest issues involving North Carolina's alcoholic beverage control (ABC) system, the state liquor sales program, which allows each city and county to have a local alcoholic beverage control board and employees (163 boards in all).

Can the government ethics enforcement community learn anything from a successful experiment in the crime enforcement field? With tongue only partly in cheek, I will try to show ways in which the government ethics enforcement community could learn a thing or two.

This week's New York Times Magazine ran an excellent piece by Jeffrey Rosen on a successful approach to crime enforcement. Here's the essence of the article's message:
    Political activity by local government employees can be a sign of misuse of office. And when election problems arise, they generally involve local government employees, as has happened in Essex County (NJ; home of Newark), according to an article in Friday's Star-Ledger.

    The principal problem with political activity involves patronage, the system whereby officials make it a requirement of being hired for a job that the employee work for the election of certain candidates. The classic case is Chicago, where even a federal order to institute serious obstacles to the patronage system were, for years, undermined by fraudulent conduct.

    Baltimore Mayor Resigns
    Baltimore's mayor resigned on Wednesday, fortunately after being convicted of the crime of embezzlement (albeit for $500 in gift cards) rather than the ethics violation (not yet tried) of failing to include gifts on her financial disclosure statement (see Baltimore Sun article).

    If citizens could once in their lives be a juror in a government ethics trial, we would have incredible ethics laws. This is the conclusion one comes to after reading, in an Albany Times-Union article, the comments of jurors in the trial of former NY senate majority leader Joseph Bruno for misuse of office and failure to disclose.

    Here are a few of the jurors' comments:

    Tallahassee takes a compliance approach to ethics. Its ethics code is aspirational, based on core values. Its ethics training employs a Character First approach. Conflicts of interest are only a small portion of a program that ranges from personnel and transparency issues to harassment, discrimination, and fraud.

    This is not the sort of ethics program usually discussed in this blog, because it is not what is traditionally referred to as "government ethics." But since the city government calls it an ethics program, it is important to look at what it is and how it differs from a traditional program.

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