making local government more ethical
This is the first of four blog posts in which I will look at Zephyr Teachout's excellent new book, Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin's Snuff Box to Citizens United (Harvard Univ. Press), from a government ethics viewpoint. I have already reviewed Teachout's seventh chapter (which appeared separately in draft form), on the history of lobbying regulation, particularly by courts, and have included a discussion of it in my new chapter on Local Lobbying.

The first thing that one should know about the book is that it is not a history of corruption in the United States, but rather a history of the idea of corruption in the U.S. Teachout's focus is on "the anticorruption principle," which she believes was central to the Founders' vision of the United States, and which has, in recent years, been lost sight of. Teachout is very passionate about both the principle and the way the courts have turned their back on it, and this passion is what makes the book so readable and, even, moving. Although it is full of history and appraisals of judicial decisions, it is not just an academic exercise.

The most important thing about this book to government ethics specialists is that Teachout's discussion of corruption is limited to influence on government officials via (1) gifts, including campaign contributions, and (2) lobbying. As she says in the book's introduction, "There are important areas of corruption law that this book only lightly touches on, like contracting rules, transparency laws, [and] state and local government conflict of interest laws ..."

Although this is not a book about the core conflicts of interest issues or about the conflicts of interest programs, Teachout does raise a number of issues and ideas that are relevant to all aspects of government ethics. It is these issues and ideas that my posts will discuss.

An example I often use for why government ethics laws are only minimum requirements is that these laws cannot include friendships or romantic relationships, because these are impossible to define with any precision. When a relationship is not included because it is undefinable, this does not mean that one should not treat this relationship like any other special relationship and withdraw from matters involving that individual. One should go beyond the minimum requirements of the law and withdraw. Or even consider whether it is appropriate to have such a relationship, any more than it would be to go into business with a restricted source. It may seem unromantic, but personal relationships do involve more than love and affection. And the last thing a local official wants is jokes about how he's "sleeping with" a contractor, developer, or lobbyist.

In North Carolina, there appear to have been some cases of legislative aides dating lobbyists. To deal with the problem, a laughably inadequate bipartisan bill was drafted, instead of using the situation as a teaching point for the idea that ethics laws (in this case, a basic conflict of interest provision's application to special personal relationships) are, unlike most other laws, only minimum requirements. Here's the draft bill (HB 252):
More from St. Louis County municipalities. According to an article in Sunday's St. Louis Post-Dispatch, several of these municipalities — with the connivance of municipal court judges, local prosecutors, police officers, and lawyers — use the state's point system for traffic tickets to get more money for themselves. The result is a system of ticket fixing that takes institutional corruption to a new level. Most ticket fixing involves police officers doing secret favors for people, for a variety of reasons, often due to connections with high-level officials. A lot of people know about the ticket fixing, but they are not directly involved. Here the system is more open and more people are directly involved. It is a sign of a seriously unhealthy ethics environment in these municipalities.

Here's how it works. You are given a ticket for speeding or running a light, which means both a fine and an increase in your car insurance due to increased "points" (the point system is state law). If you hire a lawyer to represent you, she will get the charge changed to illegal parking, which carries no increase in car insurance, but has a fine twice that of the speeding ticket (and you have to pay the lawyer).

The Law of the Land Blog has recently summarized a number of California decisions regarding proximity, a conflict of interest issue that, for some reason, seems to come up primarily in California, due in large part, I suppose, to its 500-foot rule.

In the subsection of my book Local Government Ethics Programs on proximity (in the Indefinite Benefits section), I oppose numbers such as 500 feet. My argument is that "what is important here is not the actual concrete benefit or harm, but rather how the official’s presumed expectation of benefit or harm is perceived by the public, based on the only concrete thing the public has to go on: the position the official takes on the project. If an official supports a development near her business, it is assumed that she expects to benefit from it. If she opposes the development, it is assumed that she expects it to harm her business. Since the official is presumed to know best (even if she turns out to be wrong), the assumption is that she is putting her interests ahead of the public interest."

Below are four valuable advisory opinions by the state's ethics commission, the Fair Political Practices Commission ("FPPC"), which has jurisdiction over local officials.

U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez is to be indicted this week for bribery and failure to report gifts. Where there is an effective government ethics program, he would be easily found to have committed administrative government ethics violations. In a criminal case, the official has the edge (and he has already formed a legal defense fund, to obtain legal but inappropriate contributions from those seeking favors from him). According to a Washington Post article yesterday, Menendez has a couple of good defenses that he would not have in a government ethics case.

One is that he and the ophthamologist/owner of a company that provides screening equipment for ports have been friends for decades. In most local government ethics codes, gifts from contractors includes gifts from friends who are contractors.

Hillary Clinton's use of a private e-mail account is not something that is done only at the federal level. Lots of mayors and council members, as well as other government officials, do public business on private accounts, even if they have a publicly provided cellphone and computer.

The principal issue in articles and posts about the Clinton case is transparency. But there is another issue:  the confusion of person and office (see the section of my book Local Government Ethics Programs on this issue). A public official does not have the discretion to decide whether she wants to use a public or private e-mail account, phone, or computer for public business. It is usually a feeling of entitlement that makes a public official think she has this discretion. As a public official, whatever the rules are, one has an obligation to do public business publicly. If a public official gets an e-mail on a private account, she has an obligation to transfer that e-mail to her public account and to let the person who inappropriately sent the e-mail to send future e-mails to the public account. If someone continues to send messages to the private account, the public official should stop responding.