making local government more ethical
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?

Many major cities do not prohibit gifts from those seeking special benefits from the city government (restricted sources) to family members of city officials. Such a prohibition may seem a stretch, at least theoretically. How can a government interfere in the gifts given to an official's family members? Consider this situation, from 2011, which recently became public.

According to a recent article in the Washington Post, the CEO of a dietary supplement company seeking to get acceptance of its new supplement in Virginia paid $15,000 in catering costs for the wedding reception of the daughter of Virginia's governor. Three days before the wedding, the governor's wife spoke at a seminar about how the new supplement would be a way to lower health-care costs in Virginia. Three months later, the supplement's launch party was held at the gubernatorial mansion.

“There’s a case out there; I myself cannot speak about the case. However, I would ask the community, each and every one of you, to keep me in your prayer.”


— Spring Valley, NY mayor Noramie F. Jasmin, at the first public meeting after she was arrested for accepting a bribe from a developer who was cooperating with the FBI (from an article in today's New York Times). As happens far too frequently, Mayor Jasmin turned the Fifth Amendment right to remain silent into a prohibition on her to speak honestly about the allegations made against her.

We often hear elected officials saying, "I can't be bought at any price." The assumption behind this statement is that there is no amount of money, no job offer, nothing that will make the elected official act or vote any way than the way he otherwise intends to act or vote, that he cannot be influenced.

In a discussion forum I follow, journalist Ben Adler pointed out that there might actually be different prices for different acts. Sometimes elected officials accept gifts or campaign contributions from people who simply want to nudge them a bit this way or that, a provision or even a word, which would not go against the official's views or values at all. The price for this would presumably be low.