making local government more ethical
Two big local ethics/election stories come from Contra Costa, CA and Tallahassee, FL.

Ethics Reform Package Features a Different Sort of Public Campaign Financing Program
According to an article this morning on the Tallahassee Democrat website, by a 2-1 margin Tallahassee voters approved a charter amendment that will (1) create a seven-member ethics board with the power to investigate ethics complaints and levy civil penalties, (2) lower the campaign contribution limit from $1,000 to $250, and (3) institute one of the few local public campaign financing programs. (I was consulted about the amendment, and made recommendations for improving it.)

The last time I discussed contingency fee arrangements in local government contracting was 2007 (the focus then was on attorneys). A front-page story in today's New York Times shows clearly that I have not been giving this topic the attention it deserves.

Allegations have been made by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York (disclosure: I worked for this office as a law school intern back in 1977-78) that a New York City department and an IT contractor were engaged in defrauding Medicaid over a five-year period, at a cost of tens of millions of dollars. With respect to government ethics, the central paragraph of the article is as follows:
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."

Chicago's Legislative IG
The battle continues in Chicago over government ethics authority and funding. According to the cover letter to the legislative inspector general's semi-annual report dated August 22, 2014 (attached; see below), the IG's office has expended its 2014 budget and the city council is not willing to provide it with more funds. The council has also transferred campaign finance authority from the IG's office back to the ethics board, over the opposition of both the IG and the ethics board itself, which also lacks the resources to deal with the huge demands of campaign finance oversight, and believes that it is better to separate investigation from enforcement.

As the IG states in the letter, "Since the campaign finance reporting mechanism in itself is essentially based on an honor system which requires self-reporting, it is imperative that there are proactive reviews taking place on a consistent basis to ensure compliance." According to the IG, last year the ethics board was changed from an investigative body to an an adjudicative body, with the IG offices (there is also an executive IG) to take over its investigative responsibilities.

The IG powerfully describes the council's attitude toward ethics enforcement (council members are called "aldermen"):
Ferguson, MO — where Michael Brown was recently killed by a police officer, and the police department's first reaction was to protect the officer and keep the facts secret — is an unusual case of a local government where a scandal is likely to actually increase rather than decrease citizen participation in government.

There is an interesting column today in Vox about why a primarily black city has a nearly all-white government. The article quotes Prof. Jeff Smith, formerly a St. Louis-area state senator, explaining the situation (which he says is relatively common to suburbs where minorities have moved in recent decades) as follows:
Longtime white residents have consolidated power, continuing to dominate the City Councils and school boards despite sweeping demographic change. They have retained control of patronage jobs and municipal contracts awarded to allies.

The North County Labor Club, whose overwhelmingly white constituent unions (plumbers, pipe fitters, electrical workers, sprinkler fitters) have benefited from these arrangements, operates a potent voter-turnout operation that backs white candidates over black upstarts. The more municipal contracts an organization receives, the more generously it can fund re-election campaigns. Construction, waste and other long-term contracts with private firms have traditionally excluded blacks from the ownership side and, usually, the work force as well.