making local government more ethical
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."

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."

This week, California governor Jerry Brown had to go back fifty years to find someone who agreed with his view of government ethics reform. According to an article in the San Diego Mercury-News, in vetoing ethics reforms that "sought to limit the types of gifts politicians can accept and force lawmakers to disclose the names of groups that bankroll their travel junkets," Brown "referred lawmakers to an article written by one of his former law professors [Bayless Manning] that was published by the Federal Bar Journal in 1964: "The Purity Potlatch: An Essay on Conflicts of Interest, American Government and Moral Escalation." According to the article, the essay "argued that there was no evidence that new ethics rules imposed at the time were having any effect on public officials' conduct."

The Stamford (CT) Advocate's Angela Carella wrote an excellent column on Saturday about a post-employment (also known as revolving door) situation in Stamford. Entitled "In Ethical Questions, Appearances Matter," the column looks at the many problems with a school board member taking a job with a company that manages the school board's construction projects. He resigned his position the day before he accepted the job.

When officials take jobs with businesses their agency oversees, they are seen as using their government service as a stepping stone to help themselves as well as the firms that do business with the government, a win-win deal for everyone but the public. The revolving door puts a question mark at the end of everything the official did in office: what was he giving away in order to get a personal reward? When he acted, advocated, and voted, was he thinking of his future or what’s best for the public?

One of Carella's most astute observations is that the situation was not cured by the school board member's decision not to attend a meeting where the school board voted on a 42% increase in the contractor's fee (partly to create the position the school board member has filled). One reason is that, despite withdrawing from the vote, he did not withdraw from participation in the matter. "[H]e had the opportunity in the months before — particularly as head of the Operations Committee that oversees [the contractor] — to influence board members' views of [the company's] performance as school facilities manager."

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