making local government more ethical
The arrest of New York state senate majority leader Sheldon Silver points to an ongoing institutional problem that is not limited to New York state:  the law firm as the perfect place to launder money. The reason for this is that lawyer-client confidentiality, at least as it is often practiced, allows a law firm, and the public office holders who are part of or do work for it, to keep its clients, its services, its receipts, and its payments secret.

According to the complaint, dated January 21, Silver has been accused of using his position to give himself millions of dollars in kickbacks and bribes, most of which went through two law firms with which he is affiliated. What were called "attorney referral fees" came from clients with substantial business before the state and, according to the complaint, "not as a result of legitimate outside income Silver earned as a private lawyer." Even legitimate and semi-legitimate outside income earned from those seeking special benefits from the government can be problematic.

Call for a State Municipal Lobbying Code
It may be a big holiday week and the end of the year, but there has still been some news on the government ethics front. The Boston Globe has called for the state to institute disclosure requirements for local lobbying. According to the editorial, the only rule now is to file a letter with the Boston city clerk when lobbying the Boston city council. One letter about whom is represented and what the nature of the business is. You can lobby the Boston mayor and any board or agency without notice, not to mention the other cities and counties in the state. That doesn't cut it, at least according to the Globe editorial board.

I've written several posts about individuals who have created fiefdoms (a D.A., a housing authority director, a city pension board attorney, the director of a council of local governments, and the CEO of a state university foundation), but none of them were union leaders. A large investigative piece in the New York Times today provides an excellent description of the fiefdom of the head of New York City's correction officers union.

Uniformed unions wield a disproportionate power in most local governments. One reason is that their support is often considered necessary to win an election. This gives them a great deal of leverage with elected officials. For one thing, mayors and local legislators rarely criticize the unions in public. For example, when in November, the mayor called for "a culture change" in the city's violent jail, he criticized the corrections department, not the union. In fact, in October, the mayor publicly praised the union president.

The Times investigation shows how many other ways the union president wields his power. The principal way is through intimidation. He allegedly walked into the office of the department's lead investigator and threatened her. And then she was replaced . . . with a childhood friend of the union president, whose brother had been on the union's executive board. A culture of violence against prisoners can derive from a culture of fear and cronyism in a fiefdom.

According to an article yesterday on the Baltimore Brew website, a year ago Baltimore's mayor officiated at a wedding between two individuals who lobby the city government. In Las Vegas, no less.

Mayors, judges and, sometimes, other local government officials often officiate at weddings. Some ethics codes have a special exception from the gift ban that allows for this, but most make no mention of it.

The question is, should there be limits on officiating at weddings, or should government officials be allowed to use their public office to officiate at anyone's wedding, including those of lobbyists, contractors, developer, and grantees ("restricted sources")?

Partial withdrawal from participation is not a sufficient cure for an apparent conflict of interest. When there is any involvement, it can be seen as providing preferential treatment, as being unfair. Once again this is made clear, in the most controversial local government problem of the year:  a white police officer's killing of a black man in Ferguson, MO.

According to an article in Newsweek, the elected St. Louis County prosecutor, Robert McCulloch, is seen as especially sympathetic to the police. "His father was a St. Louis policeman killed in the line of duty by a black man when McCulloch was 12. His brother, nephew and cousin all served with the St. Louis police. His mother worked as a clerk for the force for 20 years. McCulloch would have joined the force too, but he lost a leg in high school due to cancer. 'I couldn’t become a policeman, so being county prosecutor is the next best thing,' he once said." He also spoke out (almost alone) in favor of a continuing role for the local police in the demonstrations that followed the killing.

An article today in the New York Times describes a situation that sheds light on pay to play. It involves the Westchester County (NY) county executive, who is getting special scrutiny because he is running for governor and has, throughout his career, as well as in this election, been openly critical of pay to play. He is being accused of hypocrisy, but it may just be that he does not really understand what pay to play is, why it is problematic, or how to prevent it.

According to critics, donors who have given the Westchester county executive $900,000 in campaign contributions over the last four years have received $709 million worth of county work. The executive's campaign "scoffed at any causality, noting that contracts must be competitively bid and approved by legislators."

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