making local government more ethical
Former Maricopa County, AZ county attorney Andrew Thomas (with one of his assistants) was disbarred on Tuesday on numerous counts related to bringing false charges against other county officials over a period of years, according to an article in yesterday's Arizona Republic. According to Prof. Bennett Gershman of Pace University, "This is a huge victory for good-government people and people who believe that prosecutors should be accountable for misconduct."

But it is a bigger victory for those who believe government attorneys should be held accountable for their misconduct, whether or not they are prosecutors. Government attorneys are rarely held to account for providing poor ethics advice, or poor advice on any topic. They are rarely held to account for wearing multiple hats and failing to withdraw when their roles are in conflict.

I never know where I'm going to find something that inspires a blog post on local government ethics. This time it was an essay by Tim Parks in the March 8 issue of the New York Review of Books, as well as on the NYRBlog. The essay is about Italy, and the possibility for change in its government, economy, and culture. Parks, a British novelist and once literary translator from Italian into English who has lived in Italy for many years, notes two things about Italian political culture that resonated with me here in the U.S.

One aspect of Italian culture that Parks noted was "a tendency in general to foment and then thrive on a gap between the official version of events and their actual course, between rules and practice, appearance and reality." This isn't exactly lying. It's something much more serious, because it is more pervasive and insidious. A lie is something limited. For example, saying you've cut taxes when you've increased the mill rate. What Parks is referring to is a cultural norm where nothing that is said is actually true, where written rules aren't followed in practice, where what you see is never what you get.

On Saturday, I attended a one-day conference on Institutional Corruption sponsored by the Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University (videos of it will eventually appear here). Although local government was scarcely mentioned (there was one image of a painting that portrayed the 1930s machine in Kansas City, MO), many ideas that were discussed are applicable to local government ethics.

I will start with the ideas of Mark Warren, a professor at the University of British Columbia, not because he was the first or best speaker, but because, on the train to Boston, I read the online draft of his 2005 paper "Democracy Against Corruption" and found it fascinating. His talk at the conference presented some of the same ideas.

It's not every day that a neighboring town makes the front page of the New York Times. It's especially surprising when the reason is, at heart, a local government ethics problem.

The town is East Haven, CT (most recently in the national news for a part of it being overrun by waves during Hurricane Irene), and the problem ostensibly involves the mistreatment of immigrants in town by certain police officials. That's the criminal point of view. But the real problem is loyalty. The police, and certain town officials, put their loyalty to each other ahead of their loyalty to the town's residents. Four police officers have been indicted, one of them the head of the police union, and it appears that the union and the mayor are solidly behind them.

Henry Adams' 1880 novel Democracy is a must-read for those interested in government ethics. It's also a first-rate novel, full of wit, excellent writing, and a good portrayal of post-Civil War Washington. It's available free from Project Gutenberg, in six e-book formats.

The climax of the novel is an exchange between the Secretary of the Treasury (Ratcliffe, formerly a senator) and the novel's protagonist (Madeleine), a wealthy widow fascinated with politics. The exchange is all about government ethics. Here are a few wonderful quotations from the novel, including from the climax:

Lawrence Lessig's excellent new book Republic, Lost: How Money Corrupts Congress—and a Plan to Stop It (Twelve, Oct. 5, 2011) is about Congress and mostly about campaign finance, but it is also an important look at institutional corruption that has some valuable things to say that are relevant to local government ethics.

Lessig, who is director of the Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics at Harvard University, came to government ethics in an interesting fashion. As a law professor specializing in copyright law, he sought to make out-of-print but copyrighted books available to the public. But his efforts, as reasonable, as clearly in the public interest, and as consistent with the Constitution (which actually mentions copyright) as can be, went nowhere. Instead, copyrights were extended more and more.

Institutional Corruption
Lessig came to realize that what caused these extensions, institutional corruption, is "the gateway problem: until we solve it, we won't solve any number of other critical problems." True reform, in any area, is impossible as long as the current institutional situation remains. Therefore, he switched his focus from copyright to government ethics, with an emphasis on campaign finance.