making local government more ethical
It's Attack the Ethics Commission week once again, this time in New York State. According to an April 16 article in the Albany Times-Union, a mayor from one party filed a complaint against the deputy majority leader of the New York Senate, who is a member of the other party. The complaint is included below the article, and a statement by the mayor, about the filing, is quoted.

Fast forward to May 15, when the senate majority leader accused the state ethics commission of leaking the commission's letter to the respondent. What important information could possibly be in the letter to the respondent that was not already in the complaint?

A few issues arise in the case of a Pennsylvania state senator who reached a settlement this week with the state's ethics commission that included a fine of $21,000, according to an article in yesterday's Montgomery County Times Herald.

Pennsylvania state senators are paid for the rental of their district offices. This senator's wife (and then the senator himself after their divorce) owned 50% of the company that owned the building where he had his district office, until the company was sold in 2008.

At first blush, it might not seem a problem for an official to rent an office from himself, as long as he is paying the going rate. But what is the going rate? And might the space not have been rented at all if the official didn't rent it to himself? Since these questions are hard to answer, it is best that an official not rent to himself.

This week, a citizen in the village of Niles, IL (pop. 30,000) made a proposal for applicant disclosure, something every ethics program should have, but most do not. According to an article in yesterday's Niles Herald-Spectator, the proposal "would ask if the applicant’s officers, directors or partners are related by blood or marriage or reside in the same residence as any Niles elected official, appointed official [or] village employee. It would also require the applicant to disclose information regarding political contributions to any such elected official, appointed official or Niles employee" over the past five years.

I have written about the need for ethics commissions to go beyond the criminal enforcement paradigm, which limits commissions to determining whether an individual respondent has violated an ethics provision or not. It is hard to find instances of a commission looking at the bigger picture, that is, at the common practices and unwritten rules that underlie an individual's ethical misconduct. I read about such an instance in the New York Times yesterday.

The commission is the New York State Commission on Judicial Conduct. The commission's report on Judge Luis Gonzalez, dated March 30, dismisses three of four charges against the judge. As for the fourth charge, regarding nepotism in hiring, the commission goes beyond the judge's conduct to look at common practices among judges with respect to hiring for administrative positions.

It's amazing the lengths people will go to when they are accused of bribery. Take Zehy Jereis, a former Yonkers, NY party chair who gave nearly $175,000 to a Yonkers council member, and is being accused of doing this in order to get her to make a pivotal vote in favor of his client's controversial mall, according to an article in yesterday's New York Times.

He says it had nothing to do with the mall. It was love. Unrequited love. Not only did he give the council member all sorts of gifts, but he lost 150 pounds for her, got his teeth and hair fixed for her, and helped pay her brother's high school tuition.

Proximity rules are common to local and state government ethics codes nationwide (see my blog post on them from five years ago). They require officials to withdraw from any matter dealing with property within a certain distance of property they own or rent, no matter how many others have property within the same proximity.

According to a big exposé piece in yesterday's Washington Post, "Congressional representatives are required to certify that they do not have a financial stake in the actions they take." But the rules they have written to apply to themselves do not address proximity. The issue is not proximity, but the process by which proximity was not addressed.