making local government more ethical
A New Use of a Nonprofit as a Conduit
Pay to play appears to be as creative a field as cellphone apps. An article in the Washington Examiner on Sunday points to a new way to get developer money into an official's pockets via a nonprofit organization. A zoning agreement stipulated that the developer would donate $55,000 to the Business Council as part of its community contributions. The Business Council was a nonprofit established by a council member, who appointed its members, including one of his own staff members as its treasurer.

A big controversy surrounding the race for mayor of Honolulu is focused on the state's pay-to-play culture of the past, and what pay to play actually is. The reason for this is that a former Hawaii governor is running for mayor, and he is being supported by Bob Watada, a former state Campaign Spending Commission executive director who is known for bringing the state's pay-to-play culture to its knees during his 1994-2005 term in office.

According to a November 2005 look at the executive director's career in the Hawaii Reporter, he fined nearly 100 companies for making "false name" contributions and excessive contributions primarily to the then Honolulu mayor and the then governor, who is now running for mayor. "The city prosecutor and federal government took over some of Watada’s cases charging corporate executives of those companies with money laundering, making illegal campaign contributions and tax evasion. The companies participated in the scheme to boost their chances of getting government contracts, concession rights or zoning clearances. Watada also either headed investigations, or uncovered information, that led to a long line of powerful politicians going to jail."

One politician who was not prosecuted was the then governor. Watada says that he was clean, that he didn't know who made contributions, that he didn't know about the illegal contributions made to his compaign, and that the fact that he closed down his committee rather than returning illegal contributions was common practice and perfectly legal.

If you read the newspapers and blogs, the big issues in the Chicago Chick-fil-A controversy are free speech and government boycotts. But it's really a government ethics issue.

All rational voices acknowledge that a local legislator should not block a store opening just because it has given large sums to help an unpopular political cause. What they aren't saying is that a local legislator shouldn't be able to block a store opening in his district at all. Zoning matters should not be up to council members. They should be up to zoning boards and zoning officials.

Talk about independent expenditures usually refers to such expenditures in support, or more often in opposition to, federal candidates. At the local level, the major independent expenditures tend to come from unions, both public service unions and construction unions. There are also cases where independent expenditures come from contractors and others seeking direct benefits from the candidates they support or oppose. This can look very much like a payoff for favors done and/or for future favors, generally referred to as pay to play.

One such case has arisen in Montebello, CA, a small city of 62,000. According to an article posted yesterday evening on the Whittier Daily News website, a company that had recently obtained a no-bid $150 million, 15-year refuse hauling contract gave "close to $353,000" (or nearly $14 per registered voter) to a 2009 Say No on Recall campaign committee it created. Two of the council members were targeted for recall largely due to approval of the refuse contract. The small refuse companies that had formerly done the work provided most of the funding for the pro-recall committee, according to an article in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune.

The situation of Rose Pak, a power broker for San Francisco's Chinese-American community who was featured a week ago in a New York Times article, raises some interesting questions. A paid consultant to the Chinese Chamber of Commerce, she has never held public office. Nor has she ever registered as a lobbyist or been an official member of a campaign, even that of the Chinese-American man who was just elected mayor, Edwin Lee. According to the article, she has mobilized Chinese votes, volunteers, and contributions for a succession of mayors and city supervisors in return for city financing of social programs and building projects in Chinatown. She also helps Chinese-Americans get appointments in the city government, most notably Lee's appointment as interim mayor (he had been the city administrator).

Legal Disciplinary Proceeding as Ethics Enforcement Forum
Occasionally, government ethics enforcement spills out from ethics and criminal proceedings into other types of proceeding. Since Maricopa County's officials have managed to turn ethics and criminal enforcement into a form of internecine warfare, the state's lawyer disciplinary program has gotten into the action.