making local government more ethical
An example I often use for why government ethics laws are only minimum requirements is that these laws cannot include friendships or romantic relationships, because these are impossible to define with any precision. When a relationship is not included because it is undefinable, this does not mean that one should not treat this relationship like any other special relationship and withdraw from matters involving that individual. One should go beyond the minimum requirements of the law and withdraw. Or even consider whether it is appropriate to have such a relationship, any more than it would be to go into business with a restricted source. It may seem unromantic, but personal relationships do involve more than love and affection. And the last thing a local official wants is jokes about how he's "sleeping with" a contractor, developer, or lobbyist.

In North Carolina, there appear to have been some cases of legislative aides dating lobbyists. To deal with the problem, a laughably inadequate bipartisan bill was drafted, instead of using the situation as a teaching point for the idea that ethics laws (in this case, a basic conflict of interest provision's application to special personal relationships) are, unlike most other laws, only minimum requirements. Here's the draft bill (HB 252):
U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez is to be indicted this week for bribery and failure to report gifts. Where there is an effective government ethics program, he would be easily found to have committed administrative government ethics violations. In a criminal case, the official has the edge (and he has already formed a legal defense fund, to obtain legal but inappropriate contributions from those seeking favors from him). According to a Washington Post article yesterday, Menendez has a couple of good defenses that he would not have in a government ethics case.

Friendship
One is that he and the ophthamologist/owner of a company that provides screening equipment for ports have been friends for decades. In most local government ethics codes, gifts from contractors includes gifts from friends who are contractors.

Even the most enthusiastic good government politicians often have a serious blind spot:  themselves. They believe that everyone else is into pay to play and selling out to big contributors. But not them. They're only doing what's best for their city.  They have only the community's best interests in mind. And sometimes the community needs those big contributors, and who but he is best situated to get them to open their wallets? However, the big contributors don't have the same blind spot, so they don't want the public to know how much they're shelling out. This means that, adding insult to injury, the big contributions are not disclosed. There is no transparency. At least until it all comes out, which it eventually does.

This time, it came out in an article on the WNYC Radio website by Andrea Bernstein. The politician with the big blind spot (he's 6' 5") is New York City mayor Bill de Blasio. And what he's raising millions of dollars for is trying to lure the Democratic Party convention to Brooklyn, to show that he can get the money together to pay for a lot of the costs.

According to an article yesterday on the Baltimore Brew website, a year ago Baltimore's mayor officiated at a wedding between two individuals who lobby the city government. In Las Vegas, no less.

Mayors, judges and, sometimes, other local government officials often officiate at weddings. Some ethics codes have a special exception from the gift ban that allows for this, but most make no mention of it.

The question is, should there be limits on officiating at weddings, or should government officials be allowed to use their public office to officiate at anyone's wedding, including those of lobbyists, contractors, developer, and grantees ("restricted sources")?

According to an article in the November 29 issue of The Economist, when China banned gifts to government officials, sales of the principal producer of baijiu, a sort of Chinese vodka, fell 78% in just a year.

The only sales that would likely go down if gifts were banned across the board in the United States would be restaurant and golf club sales. That is because petty bribery is less a problem here than the ongoing reciprocal relationships between lobbyists and the government officials their clients are seeking to influence.

Former lobbyist, now jailbird, Kevin A. Ring shared some valuable words of wisdom in an op-ed piece in the Washington Post this week.

He says that the gift limit should be zero, because any other limit will be abused (what he doesn't say is that any exception will also be abused). He also notes that "Numerous psychologists and behavioral economists have confirmed the principle of reciprocity: People are hard-wired to repay even small favors or gifts. For officeholders, this benign, evolutionary instinct could come back to hurt them."