making local government more ethical
It amazes me how many ways elected officials misuse charitable organizations to engage in ethical misconduct, especially to get around gift rules. One would think that charities would be sufficiently sacrosanct. But instead they are frequently used as an indirect form of pay to play, and they have played a major role in getting around campaign finance limitations.

The form of misuse of charitable organizations that this post will look at involves a company that wants to get around restrictions on corporate campaign contributions. It is not enough that the company's employees are allowed to give to a corporate SSF (separately segregated fund, essentially a corporate PAC). The company decided to induce such gifts by double "matching" them with its own gifts to a charitable organization that does only one thing:  help out its employees when they are in need.

The company is Wal-Mart, the charity is Wal-Mart Associates in Critical Need Fund, and the matter that has arisen is a complaint filed with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) by Public Citizen and Common Cause. The most amazing fact stated in the complaint is that the FEC has already issued twelve opinions on this very topic, allowing almost all of the situations on the grounds that there was not "an exchange of corporate treasury funds for voluntary contributions and a form of indirect compensation for the contributor's contribution."

An interesting debate about lobbying and advisory groups can be found on the Austin Bulldog website. Late last week, the Bulldog published an article about an ethics complaint filed by the president of the Austin Neighborhoods Council (ANC) against an appointed member of the Land Development Code Advisory Group (CAG). The complaint alleges that the CAG member is an unregistered lobbyist for a real estate consulting company, and that the resolution establishing CAG says that lobbyists or employees of lobbyists, registered or not, may not be members. The CAG member insists she has never lobbied, nor has her consulting firm.

There are two important issues here:  the definition of lobbyist and the membership of advisory groups. I have dealt with the latter issue in three blog posts:  a Fort Worth situation, "Making Use of Expertise," and "Alternatives to Allowing Conflicted Individuals to Sit on Advisory Boards." So I won't go into this issue here, except to say that there is no reason in the world to limit the prohibition on membership to lobbyists without limiting it equally to anyone directly or indirectly seeking special benefits from the government. There has to be a balancing of expertise with conflict of interest, and conflicts of interest are not limited to lobbyists.

Is it appropriate for a mayor — especially a mayor in a city with strict gift rules and a public campaign financing program that has strict campaign contribution limits — to work with an organization that lobbies the state on behalf of his policies and sponsors ads and materials that support his views and, especially, celebrate his successes?

This is the situation in New York City, where Bill de Blasio, in his first year in office, is being celebrated by an entity called Campaign for One New York (CONY), which announced yesterday its expenditures and contributors (in keeping with de Blasio's support of transparency, it went well beyond the requirement of disclosing contributors of over $5,000).

San Francisco's board of supervisors will soon vote on a number of amendments to its lobbying code (attached; see below). According to an article in yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle, the amendments are based on recommendations by local good government groups, which have pointed out that loopholes in the current law allow many lobbyists not to register. The amendments are sponsored by the board's president, David Chiu.

Independent Agencies
It is a good thing that the amendments extend the definition of "lobbyist" to those who lobby independent agencies, offices, and bodies. The officials who work for or sit on these bodies are some of the most lobbied officials, but they generally do not like to be included in government ethic programs and, therefore, are often excluded from them. Here are some of the agencies, offices, and bodies that are currently not covered, but would be:
I am a big believer in officials taking voluntary action to improve an ethics environment when passing laws is not possible. For example, if the state and the council both choose not to prohibit campaign contributions from restricted sources, that is no reason why a mayoral candidate should not make it known that he will reject such contributions and do his best to get all candidates to reject them. In many instances, this can be the end of such campaign contributions in that particular city or county, and neighboring cities and counties may follow suit. But often, when voluntary action is taken, but no law is passed, there is backsliding.

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.

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