making local government more ethical
One Indian tribe wants to build a casino, another tribe already has one in the area and doesn't want competition. You're a council member in the city that can effectively block the casino from being built. Both tribes want your support, and are willing to back up that support with campaign contributions. What do you do?

According to an article in yesterday's Spokesman-Review, this is a question that Spokane's council members have faced. "About two years ago, the council voted 4-3 to oppose the tribe’s proposed casino resort. The council now has a new make-up," and the new council president wants to reconsider the proposal.

While running for his position, the council president accepted $1,600 in contributions from the tribe that wants to build a casino. When accused of supporting the proposal due to the contributions, the council president said that, in 2011, a lobbyist from the tribe that already has a casino told him that he had found four or five people willing to give him maximum campaign contributions (this is an offer to "bundle" contributions, a common thing that lobbyists do, so that their client can take credit not only for contributions, but also for fundraising). When the council president told the lobbyist he would continue to support the new casino, the lobbyist told him, “You probably won’t hear from us.”

According to an article in the New Orleans Times-Picayune, yesterday former New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin was convicted on 20 of the 21 corruption charges against him, primarily for bribery, honest services fraud, and tax fraud.

This hard-fought battle was actually about one thing only, whether gifts given to the mayor were intended to influence him. From a government ethics perspective, this was unnecessary. The acceptance of gifts from someone seeking benefits is sufficient. Therefore, all the additional discovery and presentation of evidence was unnecessary, except to ensure that he would do time.

They said it couldn't — or, at least, wouldn't — be done, but you can see it for yourself, in living Internet color:  non-required disclosures made by Chicago officials and employees.

These are not annual disclosures, but mostly disclosures of gift offers, accepted and rejected. There are dozens of them for 2012 and 2013, and 9 already for 2014. It's good that these disclosures are made, and that they're made public. It never hurts to make local officials look good!

Maybe the next Chicago fraud case will involve officials making up gifts that they can say they returned.
Here is a concrete example of the problem of allowing local government attorneys to provide ethics advice that protects local officials, a problem that Florida state senator Jeff Clemens and the Florida League of Cities want to harden into state law in SB 606 (see my recent blog post for a discussion of the problem).

According to an article in yesterday's Sun-Sentinel, the state ethics commission found probable cause that a county sheriff had failed to report gifts from a contractor and campaign supporter, but recommended that no action be taken because the sheriff had relied on advise of counsel. That counsel was general counsel for the property appraiser's office, who happens to be the son of a county commissioner and whom the sheriff happened to have since made his office's general counsel. This government attorney told the sheriff to value the gift of a Bahamas cruise on the contractor's yacht (10 passengers, including the sheriff's and contractor's families) by how much it would cost to take a commercial cruise to the Bahamas. The actual cost was nearly four times the cost of a commercial cruise, and the experience was very different. On this basis, the sheriff paid the contractor a quarter of the actual cost, making the rest a gift.

This is the second of four blog posts on Florida Senate Bill 606 (attached; see below), one of the worst ethics reform bills I have ever read (click here to read the first post, which focused on a provision that provides an additional penalty on complainants in order to reduce the number of ethics complaints).

Gift Reporting vs. Gift Banning
The central provision of the bill would end gift reporting for state and local officials. I too am opposed to gift reporting. Government officials should not be accepting gifts from restricted sources, at least beyond a very low limit, such as $50 a year, to cover basic refreshments. To have them report gifts sends the message that they're okay, and that the only issue is how much one's constituents will notice or care enough to vote gift receivers out of office.

The problem with gift reporting in Florida is that no distinction is made between gifts from restricted sources and gifts from others (except for relatives). Every birthday present from a friend has to be reported. This is ridiculous.

The problem with simply getting rid of gift reporting is that, when one does, gifts from restricted sources remain legal and, to make it even worse, there is no transparency.

A recent Miami Herald article describes a case that embodies a number of important government ethics issues, including the conflict issues that involve local schools of higher education, gifts to officials' relatives and the officials' knowledge of them, an ethics program's jurisdiction over these relatives, and whether government attorneys should provide ethics advice about past conduct.

The article reports on the ways in which a fast-expanding for-profit medical college has apparently been involved with elected officials and their families. The article says that the college's founder has made over $170,000 in campaign contributions, it has hired a member of the state legislature as an attorney, and it has provided free tuition to that legislator's sister-in-law.

That same legislator sponsored legislation that loosened the accreditation requirements for physical therapy assistant programs which, among other things, allowed the college to rapidly expand its program to five different campuses. The legislation was tacked on to an unrelated piece of legislation just before it was voted on, and "could ultimately boost Dade Medical’s revenues by millions of dollars."