making local government more ethical
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.


It's here at last:  the first government ethics app (at least that I know of). According to a Capitol Alert post on the Sacramento Bee website yesterday,  California's Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) has a free smartphone app called Gift Tracker (first for Android, and soon for Apple) to let officials (state only, it appears) record in real time gifts received from restricted sources.

FPPC Enforcement Division Chief Gary Winuk is quoted as saying, "If you're at an event, if you're at a meeting, if you're giving a speech, if you're in a reception, you can just log in what the gift is." Then you export the log into a spreadsheet to attach to your annual disclosure statement (no, it doesn't appear to be a spreadsheet searchable by the public).

The app also allows officials to contact gift sources via text message, e-mail, or telephone, to let them know what they plan to report. Thus, an official can contact a reception host to let it know what she ate and drank at the reception. This way the official and the reception host are on the same page, even if no one will see the page for quite some time.

The app even helps you keep track of your aggregate gifts from a particular source, so you won't go over the $440 annual limit. The question is, can it tell you the fair market value of a sushi sampler, a glass of the best champagne, or the drafting of a bill?

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