making local government more ethical
When city and county contractors and their lobbyists don't follow the rules, it's difficult to catch them, because few cities have an oversight office that investigates on its own initiative. Without such a program, communities depend on federal and state criminal enforcers who focus on bribery and kickbacks.

It is the FBI and a federal grand jury that did the job in Dallas County which, unlike the city of Dallas, has no ethics program, just an aspirational code. In fact, it has two aspirational codes, only one of which is linked to on the county website; the one linked to is the National Association of Counties Code of Ethics (attached; see below); there is also a short ethics code in the county Code of Ordinances (Sec. 94-51). But there is no local ethics program.

According to a press release from the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Texas, a federal grand jury has returned a 109-page indictment charging a long-time Dallas County commissioner (Price), his chief of staff, a corporate lobbyist, (Nealy) and a corporate consultant (Campbell) with a conspiracy that involved nearly $1 million going to the commissioner (in the form of money, land, and cars (one of the four cars, a New 2005 BMW 645Ci, cost $100,000)), while the commissioner supported the bids of the lobbyist's clients and provided them with confidential information that gave them a "strategic advantage" over other bidders.

When a lobbying code requires that lobbyists report "specific lobbying issues" or "the subjects on which they have lobbied," what exactly is required? The best approach is to include more specific language in the disclosure section, such as "information sufficient for an ordinary member of the public to identify the law or resolution, contract, grant, regulation, real property or project, rule, proceeding, board or commission determination, or other matter."

Another approach is to include this information in comments to the lobbying code, or in a manual. This is what Congress chose to do in its Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA) Guidance publication (attached; see below). Here is what this publication says on the topic, and the example it provides:
A New York Daily News article yesterday describes an interesting conflict situation. At least one lobbying firm has worn two hats in its relationship with the speaker of the New York City council. One hat was that of a campaign and appointments consultant, the other was that of a contract lobbyist for multiple clients. See a Crain's New York Insider blog post from January for more about such relationships with the speaker.

This is legal, as the speaker's spokesperson insists, but there is still a serious conflict situation that needs to be handled responsibly. As Susan Lerner, head of New York Common Cause, is quoted as saying, “The merger between campaign consultant and lobbyist by the same entity raises significant problems and concerns.” In other words, the problem lies in having one firm wearing multiple hats in its relationship with a high-level official.

What specific problems does wearing these two hats cause? One, consulting creates a special relationship that goes beyond the usual meals and meetings with lobbyists. A special relationship leads to special access and favoritism, or the appearance of these. Lobbying is all about relationships, and lobbyists are obligated to do anything they can to further their relationships, especially with someone as important as the head of a major city's council.

The Speech or Debate Clause of the U.S. Constitution protects activities within the "legislative sphere" from being heard outside the legislature, and prevents the introduction of evidence of legislative activity in any such hearing. A recent brief from the U.S. House Ways and Means Committee in S.E.C. v. Ways and Means Committee argues (on pp. 30, 34-37) that communications between industry lobbyists and the staff director of the committee's subcommittee on health are privileged and may not be subpoenaed by the SEC in an investigation of alleged insider trading-related leaks.

The Washington state Legislative Ethics Board has been discussing how many meals a state legislator should be able to accept from lobbyists and lobbyist-employers under the "infrequent" meals exception in the state ethics code. The exception allows legislators to accept food and beverage when their attendance is "related to the performance of official duties" on "infrequent occasions." The board has apparently never defined "infrequent."

It's About Perceptions
This discussion has some resemblance to the discussion of how many angels can fit on the end of a pin. Once you believe that one angel can fit on a pin, where do you stop? This is why many in the government ethics world (including me) believe that officials should not be accepting any meals from those seeking special benefits from their government. It isn't because any particular official can be "bought" by the price of a meal. It's about perceptions.

After all, the basic Washington state gift rule prohibits any gift "if it could be reasonably expected that [it] would influence the vote, action, or judgment of the officer or employee, or be considered as part of a reward for action or inaction." I don't think it is possible for an official to convince the public that a restricted source wants to meet with her for any reason other than to influence or reward her vote, action, or judgment.

The portrayal of lobbying state and, hopefully, a few local officials will soon be in the hands of Lawrence Wright, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 and, most recently, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief.

But the portrayal will not be in the form of a book. According to an article yesterday in the Austin Chronicle, Wright will be scripting an HBO series called God Save Texas, based loosely on his 2004 play, Sonny's Last Shot. The story is about "a down-home, honest kind of Texas lawmaker who finds himself embroiled in all the corruption, pressure, gladhanding, and flawed morality that Texas politics can allow."