making local government more ethical
"It was like dandelions. You just accept them. They were there, something you've seen all your life."

Dandelions are a perfect metaphor for institutional corruption. In this case, the dandelions were extra payments (beyond those due to retirees) made by Detroit's two pension funds, to active employees (54%), retirees (14%), and the city itself (32%), the latter to lower annual contributions to the funds, according to a front-page article in today's New York Times. The extra payments totaled almost $2 billion over 23 years. The quote is from Detroit's former independent auditor general, Joseph Harris.

Why would pension boards hand out payments to active employees? May it have had something to do with the fact that the boards were controlled by government employee unions? Back in 2008, I wrote a blog post which dealt with this issue. The post talks about whose property a pension fund is:  that of the employees who will be paid from it or of the citizens whose money is being spent? In good times and when pension board trustees are acting responsibly, the citizens have little to lose. But in bad times and when pension board trustees are acting irresponsibly, not only is the citizens' money wasted, but they may find themselves paying extra money of their own.

There is a great deal of misunderstanding concerning the difference between a conflict of interest and a gift. It appears that most people consider them two completely different things. In fact, they represent two kinds of conflicts, pre-existing conflicts and conflicts that are created by an event. The confusion between the two characterizes a situation that led to an ethics complaint in Los Angeles.

According to an article on the KPCC public radio site, from January to May this year, a son of interim general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety had a paid internship (while in law school) with the lead law firm representing the developer of a huge project known as the Millenium Towers. The complaint against the general manager characterized the issue as a conflict of interest, and two published reports of the matter do the same (but a comment does suggest it was a gift). However, the general manager was involved in the matter several months before his son was hired by the law firm. There was no pre-existing conflict or relationship, only the hiring of a family member after the law firm and general manager were already involved in the matter.

Five years ago, I wrote a blog post about gifts and reciprocity, based on a classic anthropological work, Lewis Hyde's The Gift. An op-ed piece in Friday's Washington Post by another anthropologist, Hugh Gusterson, extends this look at gifts by considering two kinds of gift:  those between equals and those that establish subordination.

Focusing on gifts to Virginia's governor from the owner of a pharmaceutical company, Gusterson notes that gifts to politicians from companies and wealthy individuals tend to establish subordination. He writes that "the governor can only return Williams’s generosity by lending him the power of his office in some way."

Gifts to a local official can fall between jurisdictional cracks, as shown in an article today in the New York Times. They can also fall between definitional cracks. And between these cracks it's gray.

The article reports that, a couple of years ago, Newark NJ's mayor, Cory Booker, who is running for U.S. Senate, was given money by several high-tech executives to found a high-tech company.

Several interesting issues arise from a recent ethics case in Jefferson Parish, a suburb of New Orleans with about 430,000 people. According to an article in the Advocate yesterday, an employee of a large parish contractor sent the following e-mail to a council member's aide, who forwarded it to the council member:
“I would like to schedule a meeting with Councilman Spears to meet with Jim Martin, Vice President of GEC to discuss business development in District 3. Would a campaign contribution make the meet happen any quicker?"
In Hawaii, "Aloha" is not just a greeting. It also is a way of treating people, of thanking them. In other words, it often involves a gift. That explains the headline of a Honolulu Civil Beat article yesterday, "Can Too Much Aloha Be a Bad Thing? Ask Hawaii's Ethics Commission."

As in so many state and local governments, elected officials and ethics commissions rarely see eye to eye about limits on gifts. But in Hawaii some of the gifts are more colorful, and the explanations for gift bans are better, as well. But since the state's gift rule is based on whether one can “reasonably infer” that a gift is intended to “influence” or “reward" an official, what is a gift is not very clear.

Therefore, the ethics commission has to keep making interpretations. For example, the EC has determined that leis are acceptable as gifts, even though they can be expensive if they're made of real flowers.