making local government more ethical
Ferguson, MO — where Michael Brown was recently killed by a police officer, and the police department's first reaction was to protect the officer and keep the facts secret — is an unusual case of a local government where a scandal is likely to actually increase rather than decrease citizen participation in government.

There is an interesting column today in Vox about why a primarily black city has a nearly all-white government. The article quotes Prof. Jeff Smith, formerly a St. Louis-area state senator, explaining the situation (which he says is relatively common to suburbs where minorities have moved in recent decades) as follows:
Longtime white residents have consolidated power, continuing to dominate the City Councils and school boards despite sweeping demographic change. They have retained control of patronage jobs and municipal contracts awarded to allies.

The North County Labor Club, whose overwhelmingly white constituent unions (plumbers, pipe fitters, electrical workers, sprinkler fitters) have benefited from these arrangements, operates a potent voter-turnout operation that backs white candidates over black upstarts. The more municipal contracts an organization receives, the more generously it can fund re-election campaigns. Construction, waste and other long-term contracts with private firms have traditionally excluded blacks from the ownership side and, usually, the work force as well.
I believe that the best solution to the problem of having lobbyists and others seeking special benefits from the government sitting on government advisory boards is to get rid of these advisory boards. Conflicts involving these boards are important because, although they are "merely advisory," their recommendations are often accepted, and their members are often selected (or seen to be selected) in order to reach a particular conclusion. The membership of such boards is difficult for well-meaning officials to balance so that the board's recommendations do not reflect the self-serving views of one side or one industry, usually one that has a financial interest in the outcome. Equally as serious, it appears to the public that the recommendations of these boards is biased. That is not a good basis for government decision-making.

In 2010, the Obama administration tried to solve this government ethics problem by prohibiting registered lobbyists from sitting on federal government advisory boards. The 130 lobbyists who sat on the 16 Industry Trade Advisory Committees (ITAC), which make recommendations concerning U.S. trade policy, filed a suit to have this prohibition declared unconstitutional. Their suit was dismissed by a federal district court, and the lobbyists appealed.

The appellate court decision in the case of Autor v. Pritzker (attached; see below) came out in January and, in response, this week the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) made a change in the policy (attached; see below) that will allow lobbyists to sit on advisory boards in their representative capacity (like employees for companies), but not in their individual capacity (as individuals who happen to be lobbyists).

The Stamford (CT) Advocate's Angela Carella wrote an excellent column on Saturday about a post-employment (also known as revolving door) situation in Stamford. Entitled "In Ethical Questions, Appearances Matter," the column looks at the many problems with a school board member taking a job with a company that manages the school board's construction projects. He resigned his position the day before he accepted the job.

When officials take jobs with businesses their agency oversees, they are seen as using their government service as a stepping stone to help themselves as well as the firms that do business with the government, a win-win deal for everyone but the public. The revolving door puts a question mark at the end of everything the official did in office: what was he giving away in order to get a personal reward? When he acted, advocated, and voted, was he thinking of his future or what’s best for the public?

One of Carella's most astute observations is that the situation was not cured by the school board member's decision not to attend a meeting where the school board voted on a 42% increase in the contractor's fee (partly to create the position the school board member has filled). One reason is that, despite withdrawing from the vote, he did not withdraw from participation in the matter. "[H]e had the opportunity in the months before — particularly as head of the Operations Committee that oversees [the contractor] — to influence board members' views of [the company's] performance as school facilities manager."

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.

The big news in the government ethics world today is the investigative piece in the New York Times about New York governor Andrew Cuomo's interference in the work of the Moreland Commission he created to investigate corruption in the state government and to recommend reforms to prevent such corruption (see my blog post on its recommendations).

Not only did Cuomo and his secretary meet with and contact the commission co-chairs, telling them not to go after certain groups associated with the governor. In addition, the commission's executive director, appointed by the governor, read the e-mails of commission members and staff, and reported to the governor's office, providing confidential information for the governor's personal and political benefit.

I keep thinking about the recent line of U.S. Supreme Court campaign finance cases that limit corruption to "quid pro quo" situations. A few months ago, I wrote a blog post explaining that the Court's picture of campaign finance as about political beliefs is not how things work at the local level, where politics is more about power and spoils than about beliefs. But the "quid pro quo" view of corruption is problematic in other ways.

One problem is that this view involves only one kind of corruption:  personal corruption. It is relevant only to situations where one individual wants a candidate or official to do something very specific in return for a campaign contribution. This is a problem, but it is not the principal problem in campaign finance.