making local government more ethical
According to an article in the Washington Post this week, the federal Office of Government Ethics has reminded agencies to tell their furloughed employees that "they remain employees of the Federal Government during furlough periods . . . It is particularly important for employees to understand that ethics provisions regarding outside activities, including provisions regarding outside employment, will continue to apply to them while they are in a furlough status."

Would this also be true of furloughed local government employees, or even employees who take an unpaid leave of absence?

Here's an interesting local government ethics scenario from Ottawa that deals with the often neglected oversight relationship. According to an article this week in the Ottawa Citizen, six people died in a recent bus-train accident at the Woodroffe Avenue train crossing in Ottawa. This brought attention to the safety of the train crossing's design.

It turns out that the consultant who designed the train crossing is married to the city's deputy city manager in charge of transportation, that is, the official in charge of the train crossing's safety. But when the consultant designed the crossing in 2004, her husband was not a city employee. He was vice-president in charge of the Ottawa office of the consulting firm that administered a safety assessment of the train crossing and designed a wider version of the crossing and the adjacent stretch of the Transitway.

There is a great deal of misunderstanding concerning the difference between a conflict of interest and a gift. It appears that most people consider them two completely different things. In fact, they represent two kinds of conflicts, pre-existing conflicts and conflicts that are created by an event. The confusion between the two characterizes a situation that led to an ethics complaint in Los Angeles.

According to an article on the KPCC public radio site, from January to May this year, a son of interim general manager of the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety had a paid internship (while in law school) with the lead law firm representing the developer of a huge project known as the Millenium Towers. The complaint against the general manager characterized the issue as a conflict of interest, and two published reports of the matter do the same (but a comment does suggest it was a gift). However, the general manager was involved in the matter several months before his son was hired by the law firm. There was no pre-existing conflict or relationship, only the hiring of a family member after the law firm and general manager were already involved in the matter.

I wrote about it in a June 2011 blog post, and then again in a June 2012 post, but it hasn't gone away. In fact, it became a big issue again this week when the Atlanta Journal-Constitution provided new evidence that things might have been far worse than was suspected.

The new evidence suggests that aides to Georgia's governor contacted a prospective ethics commission executive secretary before the position was even open, and that the governor's appointees were instrumental in having her hired at a time when the EC was considering a complaint against the governor (the EC selects its own executive secretary). The new executive secretary recommended that major charges be dropped, and arranged a settlement, with a small fine, that called the governor's violations merely "technical." Multiple staff members have said that the executive secretary removed documents from the investigation file, met with gubernatorial aides, and bragged that the governor owed her one. Staff members have filed suits galore. Things look very bad.

Timing is everything. That is the principal lesson to be learned from a conflict situation in West Palm Beach, FL. According to articles in the Palm Beach Post and on the WLRN website, the director of the city's community redevelopment agency (CRA) resigned because her company intended to bid on a contract to run the CRA. It appears, at first glance, that she handled this conflict situation responsibly by withdrawing from participation to the full extent of resigning from her government position.

The reason the CRA director did not deal responsibly with the situation was her timing.

When I put in the DVD yesterday evening, I did not expect the movie Admission (2013; written by Karen Croner, based on a novel by Jean Hanff Korelitz, starring Tina Fey and Paul Rudd) to be a revelatory movie about the mishandling of conflicts of interest situations. But it is. Not in government (it's about a university admissions employee), but the situations are easily applicable.

I can't tell the whole story of the characters' conflicts without giving away the plot turns, but I'll try to do the best I can without doing so. What is most important is that the protagonist's conduct would, if she were a government board member, not be considered an ethics violation, even though everything she did would be considered inappropriate. A discussion of the film would be a good way to show that ethics provisions are the minimum that are expected of government employees, not the maximum.