making local government more ethical
When a city or county attorney's office does not represent the ethics commission, should that office play any role in an ethics proceeding? I don't believe it should.

But that is what happened recently in Cobb County, GA, according to an article last week in the Marietta Daily Journal. After an ethics complaint was filed against four of the five county commissioners, the county attorney quickly filed a response "asking the ethics board to dismiss the complaint, which she called unfounded and based on non-legal claims."

"'Public Service Must Begin at Home': The Lawyer as Civics Teacher in Everyday Practice" by Bruce A. Green and Russell G. Pearce (William & Mary Law Review, Vol. 50, p. 1207, 2009) provides an excellent basis for something that I consider extremely important to government ethics, but with which many government ethics practitioners disagree:  going beyond the law in the provision of government ethics advice (sometimes known as "wise counsel").

What the authors mean by "the lawyer as civics teacher" is that a lawyer's civic obligation is not only to provide pro bono services and the like, externally to one's ordinary practice, but also "to convey to clients the lawyer's understanding of proper civic conduct." The authors note that "when lawyers counsel clients about their legal rights and obligations, and about how to act within the framework of the law, lawyers invariably teach clients not only about the law and legal institutions, but also, for better or worse, about rights and obligations in a civil society that may not be established by enforceable law — including ideas about fair dealing, respect for others, and, generally, concern for the public good." This includes clients' "obligations to obey the law, aspirations to fulfill the spirit of the law, and responsibility to the good of their neighbors and the general public."

In most cities and counties throughout the United States, the city or county attorney is in charge of the government ethics program. I have written a great deal about why this is not a best practice, but city and county attorneys still keep providing further reasons. Here's one from Tioga County, NY.

According to an article in the Star-Gazette yesterday, Tioga County has a law that prohibits citizens from making copies of officials' annual financial disclosure forms. They can't even photograph them, type the data into a computer, or dictate the data into a phone.

I just finished reading the classic political science book Who Governs? Democracy and Power in an American City by Robert A. Dahl (Yale University Press, 1961). It might have been the second time around, because I did take an Urban Politics course forty years ago. The book happens to focus on New Haven, the city in whose suburbs I live and whose public campaign financing program I used to administer.

Who governs? is a question that is too rarely asked by those involved in government ethics. It is assumed that the only individuals who should be under an ethics program's jurisdiction are those currently in government office or with a government job. Often excluded from jurisdiction are numerous individuals who may be very important to the management of the community, including former officials, candidates, consultants and hired professionals (including outside auditors), advisers, party officers, power brokers and fixers, bidders on contracts, grant and permit applicants, those who own and manage contractors that do government work, such as charter schools and waste management companies, and those who work for independent, semi-independent, and public-private offices, agencies, and authorities. All of these people should be included in a local government ethics program.

"Why hire a lawyer to do an internal investigation? It’s because you get the privileges. Otherwise, you’d save a little money and hire a consultant or accountant." These are the wise words of Bruce A. Green, Director of the Louis Stein Center for Law and Ethics at Fordham Law School, as quoted in the New York Times yesterday in an article about the obstacles JPMorgan Chase has put in the way of prosecutorial access to internal notes of interviews regarding the bank's involvement in the Madoff case.

For government ethics, the most important question here isn't the strategy of using lawyers rather than other investigators (or, in the case of ethics advice, lawyers instead of government ethics professionals). The most important question is, Should government attorneys be differentiated from other government officials on the basis of their function or on the basis of their membership in a professional group?

A month ago, I wrote a blog post about the Broward County (FL) inspector general's recommendations for ethics reform. A principal recommendation was to require all local officials, who are under the county ethics program's jurisdiction, to seek ethics advice from an ethics officer rather than from their city attorneys.

According to an article this weekend in the Sun-Sentinel, the local officials in at least two cities, Coral Springs and Tamarac, are not happy about this recommendation. What they are saying is good evidence for the need to take ethics advice out of the hands of numerous untrained lawyers and placing it in the hands of a trained, centralized individual or commission that can provide consistent and independent advice.