making local government more ethical
Hillary Clinton's use of a private e-mail account is not something that is done only at the federal level. Lots of mayors and council members, as well as other government officials, do public business on private accounts, even if they have a publicly provided cellphone and computer.

The principal issue in articles and posts about the Clinton case is transparency. But there is another issue:  the confusion of person and office (see the section of my book Local Government Ethics Programs on this issue). A public official does not have the discretion to decide whether she wants to use a public or private e-mail account, phone, or computer for public business. It is usually a feeling of entitlement that makes a public official think she has this discretion. As a public official, whatever the rules are, one has an obligation to do public business publicly. If a public official gets an e-mail on a private account, she has an obligation to transfer that e-mail to her public account and to let the person who inappropriately sent the e-mail to send future e-mails to the public account. If someone continues to send messages to the private account, the public official should stop responding.

The word "fiefdom" does not appear in the U.S. Justice Department's March 4 report on Ferguson, MO's police department, but that is what the report describes. What is unusual about the fiefdom is that it is controlled by the council, not by an executive or attorney. It is far from a classic fiefdom, which is why Ferguson has once again attracted my attention. One thing that is especially disturbing is that many of the same attributes appear in other cities and towns in the area (see the report's final recommendation). This is a form of institutional corruption that appears to have become the, or at least a, norm in St. Louis County. It should come as no surprise that St. Louis is in the minority of large cities without a government conflicts of interest program, and that the state's municipal ethics program is weak.

It is important for local government candidates who have serious conflicts of interest to let the community (not just voters in their district) know how they will deal with the conflicts if they are elected. To do this, they usually need to discuss possible situations with an ethics adviser, because it is too difficult to work out a plan on their own. But this rarely happens. Usually, when someone asks the right question, the candidate says she will deal with the issue when it arises, following all the relevant laws.

It is great to see the Chicago Sun-Times asking some good questions and trying to get a conflicted candidate to give more than a promise to follow the law and legal advice. The candidate has some complex conflict situations. An aldermanic candidate in Chicago, Patrick Daley Thompson is a land use attorney, a lobbyist registered with the city, a member of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District  (MWRD) commission, a nephew of the most recent mayor, Richard M. Daley (in office twelve years, and whose law firm is, among other things, bond counsel for the MWRD), and a cousin of a lobbyist for Morgan Stanley, which appears to have issued the bonds.

Even the most enthusiastic good government politicians often have a serious blind spot:  themselves. They believe that everyone else is into pay to play and selling out to big contributors. But not them. They're only doing what's best for their city.  They have only the community's best interests in mind. And sometimes the community needs those big contributors, and who but he is best situated to get them to open their wallets? However, the big contributors don't have the same blind spot, so they don't want the public to know how much they're shelling out. This means that, adding insult to injury, the big contributions are not disclosed. There is no transparency. At least until it all comes out, which it eventually does.

This time, it came out in an article on the WNYC Radio website by Andrea Bernstein. The politician with the big blind spot (he's 6' 5") is New York City mayor Bill de Blasio. And what he's raising millions of dollars for is trying to lure the Democratic Party convention to Brooklyn, to show that he can get the money together to pay for a lot of the costs.

From the Miami Herald blog:

Newspapers, advocates sue the governor and Cabinet for sunshine violation

The Florida Society of Newspaper Editors, the Associated Press, a Tampa lawyer and a coalition of sunshine advocates filed a lawsuit late Tuesday alleging that Gov. Rick Scott and the Cabinet violated the state's open meeting laws when the governor unilaterally decided to "force the resignation" of former Florida Department of Law Enforcement Chief Gerald Bailey and they consented.

The lawsuit, filed in the Second Judicial Circuit in Leon County, alleges that the Scott, Attorney General Pam Bondi, Chief Financial Officer Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam circumvented the requirements of the state's sunshine laws because they used conduits to coordinate and discuss the removal of Bailey and the selection of his replacement, Rick Swearingen, without advanced notice or in a public setting.

Read more here:

The arrest of New York state senate majority leader Sheldon Silver points to an ongoing institutional problem that is not limited to New York state:  the law firm as the perfect place to launder money. The reason for this is that lawyer-client confidentiality, at least as it is often practiced, allows a law firm, and the public office holders who are part of or do work for it, to keep its clients, its services, its receipts, and its payments secret.

According to the complaint, dated January 21, Silver has been accused of using his position to give himself millions of dollars in kickbacks and bribes, most of which went through two law firms with which he is affiliated. What were called "attorney referral fees" came from clients with substantial business before the state and, according to the complaint, "not as a result of legitimate outside income Silver earned as a private lawyer." Even legitimate and semi-legitimate outside income earned from those seeking special benefits from the government can be problematic.