making local government more ethical
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.

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.

In an April 2013 blog post, I wrote about the problems surrounding a Florida state senator's request for a state audit of Palm Beach County's EC. That report, drafted by the state legislature's Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, has recently been published, and it includes the EC's response to the report (attached; see below).

In this post, I will critique the audit report. I will not go further into the controversies surrounding the request for the audit. For more on these, see articles in Monday's Sun-Sentinel and in yesterday's BizPac Review. In a future post, I will look at how others are portraying the report and what they are saying about the Palm Beach County EC.

Party Committee Members on EC
According to an article in the Hartford Courant this week, a Newington, CT mayoral candidate, and council minority leader, who has made ethics allegations against the incumbent mayor has chosen not to file an ethics complaint because, she says, two of the four members of the town's ethics board are also members of the opposing party's town committee, one of them the nominating chair of the committee.

This is a problem with many ethics commissions that are selected by high-level officials and have few if any limitations on who can be a member. Officials and party committee members on an ethics commission cannot be seen as being neutral with respect to the officials, especially elected officials, who come before them.

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.