making local government more ethical
A big controversy surrounding the race for mayor of Honolulu is focused on the state's pay-to-play culture of the past, and what pay to play actually is. The reason for this is that a former Hawaii governor is running for mayor, and he is being supported by Bob Watada, a former state Campaign Spending Commission executive director who is known for bringing the state's pay-to-play culture to its knees during his 1994-2005 term in office.

According to a November 2005 look at the executive director's career in the Hawaii Reporter, he fined nearly 100 companies for making "false name" contributions and excessive contributions primarily to the then Honolulu mayor and the then governor, who is now running for mayor. "The city prosecutor and federal government took over some of Watada’s cases charging corporate executives of those companies with money laundering, making illegal campaign contributions and tax evasion. The companies participated in the scheme to boost their chances of getting government contracts, concession rights or zoning clearances. Watada also either headed investigations, or uncovered information, that led to a long line of powerful politicians going to jail."

One politician who was not prosecuted was the then governor. Watada says that he was clean, that he didn't know who made contributions, that he didn't know about the illegal contributions made to his compaign, and that the fact that he closed down his committee rather than returning illegal contributions was common practice and perfectly legal.

According to an article in the Times of Trenton yesterday, the FBI raided the homes of Trenton's mayor, as well as the homes of his brother and a major campaign contributor.

For those interested in government ethics, the best thing about the raid is the timeline that went up on the Times of Trenton's website this morning. The timeline provides a play-by-play of a poor ethics environment characterized by the worst sort of cronyism, retaliation against whistleblowers and others, anti-competitive-bidding schemes, participation in a matter involving the mayor's brother, campaign finance and public records violations, misuse of government property, clashes with the council and the state, and resignations galore. And this is just what the newspaper knows before the FBI has even investigated.

New Orleans must have the largest number of civic organizations that focus on government ethics, and the greatest amount of activity among them. There is the Metropolitan Crime Commission, a watchdog group that has filed ethics complaints (see my two blog posts that mention them:  1  2 ). There is Citizens for 1 Greater New Orleans, which has lobbied for a number of ethics reforms locally and at the state level.

There is Common Good, a coalition that is trying to bring together government, business, and civil society, as well as the diverse groups that make up New Orleans. And there is the Bureau of Governmental Research, whose reports often take into account good government concerns.

In recent years, Florida's elected officials have shown a great deal of leadership in the field of unethical and criminal misconduct. The state has a weak state ethics commission, which has jurisdiction over local officials, and until recently only one good local government ethics program, in Miami/Dade County (Jacksonville and Palm Beach County joined this list with ethics reform last year). The major voices in government ethics in Florida have, sadly, been grand juries.

The need for a good government group focused on government ethics has recently been filled by Integrity Florida, a nonpartisan nonprofit headed by Dan Krassner, a former public relations professional and campaign adviser, who has been Chief Strategy and Communications Officer for the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Vice President of Communications at Florida TaxWatch.

I recently read Judith N. Shklar's book The Faces of Injustice (Yale U.P., 1990). This excellent essay about the difference between misfortune and injustice would not appear to have much to do with government ethics. But there turns out to be much relevant food for thought.

The principal difference between misfortune and injustice lies in how people perceive and interpret events. Those who cause suffering have serious blind spots that make them interpret the event as unavoidable and unfortunate, when in fact they are responsible either for the event or for doing nothing to prevent or fix the situation that led to the event.

This difference is at the heart of the way high-level local officials deal with government ethics. They do not see their misuse of office as causing suffering. They say, to themselves and others, that what they do is in the public's best interest, implying that the public is wrong to see their misconduct as wrong and damaging.

Louisiana Incarcerated is an investigative series that ran recently in the New Orleans Times-Picayune. It is a story rooted in an extremely poor ethics environment that, despite vaunted ethics reforms (that many, including me, have criticized), does not seem to have changed.

The series has introduced into popular culture the term "honey hole," one sheriff's description of the cells in his prison, which is the sheriff's biggest revenue generator.

The words "revenue" and "prisoner" should not be spoken in the same sentence, as we saw in Luzerne County, PA and as could be seen for decades in the prison plantations of many U.S. states. It is no accident that Louisiana has, by far, a higher incarceration rate than any other state. When it is in the direct financial interest of local government officials to have more people incarcerated, there will probably be more people incarcerated. That's why the subheadline of the series is "Sheriffs and politicians have financial incentives to keep people locked up."