making local government more ethical
Here's a good way to get around local government transparency laws. If you want an appointee's activities to remain secret, let him be hired by a private entity, give money to the private entity sufficient to pay his salary, and don't communicate with him via government-owned computers or smartphones.

You might think that this would only occur with relatively obscure individuals and entities, aides who can do dirty work that an agency wants to keep hush-hush, hired by a social service agency that is afraid of losing its grant unless it plays along. But the case that led me to write this post involved former Connecticut governor John Rowland (who resigned in 2004 and later did prison time for accepting free work on his house from a state contractor), the city of Waterbury, and a local chamber of commerce.

Here's another story involving the lack of transparency. This time, the lack of transparency involves a company getting government grants.

According to an article from a week ago on floridaytoday.com, Brevard County, FL's commissioners approved a $205,000 grant for Project Magellan, a business development at the Melbourne (FL) airport that is "expected to bring 1,800 jobs paying an average of $100,000 apiece." The grantee's name was not provided.

According to an article yesterday on floridatoday.com, the Joint Legislative Budget Commission approved a $20.8 million grant for the same mysterious project after only three minutes of discussion, which consisted primarily of the minority leader saying that he was “going to trust the professional staff” of the Department of Economic Opportunity “that they’ll do the right thing.”

According to Wikipedia, a Grand Unified Theory (GUT) is "a model in particle physics in which at high energy, the three gauge interactions of the Standard Model which define the electromagnetic, weak, and strong interactions, are merged into one single interaction."

It appears that the case of Michael Quinn Sullivan and his trio of organizations, Empower Texans PAC, Texans for Fiscal Responsibility (a 501(c)4) organization), and Empower Texans Foundation (a 501(c)(3) organization) may provide a Grand Unified Theory in the field of government ethics, bringing together the fields of campaign finance, lobbying, transparency, and conflicts of interest.

As I keep saying, conflicts are about "benefits" and "relationships" rather than about "interests," and this should be reflected in the language of ethics codes. The clash of these two kinds of language is the subject of a recent Virginia Supreme Court decision, Newberry Station Homeowners Assoc. et al v. Board of Supervisors of Fairfax County (April 18, 2013).

The matter also involves non-financial benefits and the distinction between an official sitting on a body as a government representative or as a private individual.

Updated: November 20, 2013 (see below)

The gift regulation proposed by Philadelphia's ethics board last week (attached; see below) provides a great opportunity to consider many issues involving gift bans and exceptions.

It's a great thing that the ethics board has chosen to provide guidance with respect to the city's gift ban, which is not itself very clear. However, I don't think it did a very good job. I'm a big fan of Philadelphia's ethics program, but this gift regulation is dreadful. Fortunately, it's just a proposal. There will be a hearing on November 20, hopefully followed by a rethink of the regulation.

Yesterday, a felony complaint was issued against William Rapfogel, the CEO of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, a large nonprofit social service agency that received millions of dollars in grants and contracts from New York City, New York state, and the federal government. One of the charges is that the nonprofit made large campaign contributions to city and state candidates through its insurance company (and the company's officers and employees), using money from overcharges on insurance policies (part of this money also went, as kickbacks, to Rapfogel and others).

In New York State, nonprofits are not permitted to make campaign contributions. Nor is it legal for an individual or corporation to make campaign contributions through someone else (known as a "straw donor").