making local government more ethical
Ethics commissions are often stuck with one or more ethics provisions that they are know are, in some ways, irresponsible. They can recommend amendments to the provisions, but the legislative body is free to ignore such recommendations.

If this happens, an EC is not always powerless. It can often promulgate a regulation that can interpret the language in a provision, or provide exemptions, so that the provision is more responsible. The Massachusetts EC, which has jurisdiction over local officials, has done just this with a draft exemption (attached; see below) to a provision that effectively makes it a violation to have a conflict of interest, including a pre-existing contract with the government.

Toward the end of a video of the November 4 meeting of the Florida Joint Legislative Auditing Committee, the committee vice-chair says that the testimony he heard was very "troubling." I felt the same way about the meeting as a whole, but for completely different reasons. What occurred at this meeting is as troubling as anything I have seen in seven years of following local government ethics matters nationwide.

From about 20 minutes into the video, the meeting is supposed to be focused on the audit report on the Palm Beach County EC, which I wrote about yesterday. A member of the office drafting the report summarized the report, and then the executive director of the EC effectively summarized the EC's response to the report. The responsible thing for the committee to do was to discuss the report's conclusions and the EC's acceptance and questioning of the report's recommendations. No such discussion occurred.

Two more people spoke, both of them lawyers representing clients who had been respondents in proceedings before the Palm Beach County EC. No one was asked to respond to what they said, and very few questions were directed to the speakers.

Tomorrow morning, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case of Town of Greece v. Galloway, regarding prayer at meetings of local legislative bodies. In addition to the important constitutional questions regarding separation of church and state, there are government ethics questions involved. This post will consider those ethics questions.

What can a local official do when he is required to withdraw from a matter that involves a close personal friend who's in hot water due to that official's feud with another official? What do you do when you're caught between a rock and a hard place? The district attorney of Putnam County, NY is faced with this odd and difficult mix of personal and public obligations, at least if what he is saying is true.

According to an article in today's New York Times, the D.A.'s personal trainer and close friend was accused of the rape of a 13-year-old in the area under the D.A.'s jurisdiction. The D.A. publicly withdrew from the matter and had it handled by the district attorney in an adjoining county, which was the right thing to do. But secretly he gave money to his friend for his legal expenses and gave his friend legal advice through his friend's girlfriend, who had also been the D.A.'s nanny. In addition, after his friend's first lawyer removed himself from the case, saying that the D.A. was providing contradictory advice, the D.A.'s brother-in-law became his friend's lawyer.

It all started with the indictment, on charges of bribery and theft, of a Fats, Oil & Grease inspector back in November 2010. It led to an 83-page grand jury report in August 2013, which set out the misconduct involving the DeKalb County (GA) Department of Watershed Management (DWM) procurement process, and made recommendations not only for indictments, but also for an improved ethics program. The story that the grand jury tells in its report is a classic case of institutional corruption in a procurement context, relating to a division of the Public Works department and a large construction project. Just about every procurement-related ethics violation occurred, and many people were involved or knew what was going on.

The Privatization of Economic Development
A fascinating report has just been published by Good Jobs First, entitled "Creating Scandals Instead of Jobs: The Failures of Privatized State Economic Development Agencies." Good Jobs First describes itself as "a national policy resource center for grassroots groups and public officials, promoting corporate and government accountability in economic development and smart growth for working families."

The report's executive summary concludes that, "These experiments in privatization have, by and large, become costly failures. Privatized development corporations have issued grossly exaggerated job-creation claims. They have created 'pay to play' appearances of insider dealing and conflict of interest. They have paid executives larger salaries than governors. They have resisted basic oversight."