making local government more ethical
It is important for local government candidates who have serious conflicts of interest to let the community (not just voters in their district) know how they will deal with the conflicts if they are elected. To do this, they usually need to discuss possible situations with an ethics adviser, because it is too difficult to work out a plan on their own. But this rarely happens. Usually, when someone asks the right question, the candidate says she will deal with the issue when it arises, following all the relevant laws.

It is great to see the Chicago Sun-Times asking some good questions and trying to get a conflicted candidate to give more than a promise to follow the law and legal advice. The candidate has some complex conflict situations. An aldermanic candidate in Chicago, Patrick Daley Thompson is a land use attorney, a lobbyist registered with the city, a member of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District  (MWRD) commission, a nephew of the most recent mayor, Richard M. Daley (in office twelve years, and whose law firm is, among other things, bond counsel for the MWRD), and a cousin of a lobbyist for Morgan Stanley, which appears to have issued the bonds.

Even the most enthusiastic good government politicians often have a serious blind spot:  themselves. They believe that everyone else is into pay to play and selling out to big contributors. But not them. They're only doing what's best for their city.  They have only the community's best interests in mind. And sometimes the community needs those big contributors, and who but he is best situated to get them to open their wallets? However, the big contributors don't have the same blind spot, so they don't want the public to know how much they're shelling out. This means that, adding insult to injury, the big contributions are not disclosed. There is no transparency. At least until it all comes out, which it eventually does.

This time, it came out in an article on the WNYC Radio website by Andrea Bernstein. The politician with the big blind spot (he's 6' 5") is New York City mayor Bill de Blasio. And what he's raising millions of dollars for is trying to lure the Democratic Party convention to Brooklyn, to show that he can get the money together to pay for a lot of the costs.

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")?