making local government more ethical
I did a huge amount of reading this summer for a paper I wrote for the journal Public Integrity (and otherwise). The first piece of reading I'm going to talk about is one of the otherwise.

Washington University in St. Louis law professor Kathleen Clark's law review article, "Confidentiality Norms and Government Lawyers," 85 Wash. U. L. Rev. (2008), is on a topic I researched many years ago and never wrote about, at least at any length. Now I don't have to write it, because Clark did such an excellent job. It's too bad it took me so long to discover it.

As Clark notes, "government lawyers face the confidentiality issue every day." Generally, they tend to favor confidentiality over transparency. It's the way attorneys are taught, and what the rules of professional conduct say.

Lawyers and confidentiality can both be serious obstacles to the effectiveness of a government ethics program. An ethics case in Trumbull, CT provides a good look at how this can happen.

Attorneys on an Ethics Commission
According to an article in the Trumbull Times last week and an article in the Connecticut Post a few days before it, four of the six attorneys on the Trumbull ethics commission had to withdraw from participation in the case due to conflicts of interest. In fact, six of the seven members are attorneys (two of the seven members are alternate members).

Many high-level officials believe that attorneys make the best EC members, because they understand laws, and ethics codes are laws. However, other than government officials, attorneys are the individuals most likely to have conflicts that prevent them from participating in ethics proceedings. An attorney selected by high-level officials is even more likely than the average attorney to be conflicted in an ethics proceeding involving officials (especially the businesspeople and professionals who sit on town boards) or the businesspeople, and their attorneys, who are seeking special benefits from the government.


It's here at last:  the first government ethics app (at least that I know of). According to a Capitol Alert post on the Sacramento Bee website yesterday,  California's Fair Political Practices Commission (FPPC) has a free smartphone app called Gift Tracker (first for Android, and soon for Apple) to let officials (state only, it appears) record in real time gifts received from restricted sources.

FPPC Enforcement Division Chief Gary Winuk is quoted as saying, "If you're at an event, if you're at a meeting, if you're giving a speech, if you're in a reception, you can just log in what the gift is." Then you export the log into a spreadsheet to attach to your annual disclosure statement (no, it doesn't appear to be a spreadsheet searchable by the public).

The app also allows officials to contact gift sources via text message, e-mail, or telephone, to let them know what they plan to report. Thus, an official can contact a reception host to let it know what she ate and drank at the reception. This way the official and the reception host are on the same page, even if no one will see the page for quite some time.

The app even helps you keep track of your aggregate gifts from a particular source, so you won't go over the $440 annual limit. The question is, can it tell you the fair market value of a sushi sampler, a glass of the best champagne, or the drafting of a bill?

According to a column in today's New York Times and a visit to the New York City Business Integrity Commission's (BIC) website, the BIC provides three easy lessons in how not to run an oversight commission. The BIC has jurisdiction over the private waste carting industry, businesses operating in the city's public wholesale markets, and the shipboard gambling industry. Its goal is to "preserve a healthy and competitive environment in [these] industries in NYC through a unique and comprehensive merger of law enforcement tactics and regulatory oversight."

In his column, Michael Powell asserts that, although the BIC is meant to create a competitive environment in the industries it oversees, at the BIC itself "no-bid, zero-transparency contracts seem distressingly common." According to the most recent former BIC administrator, there is “no requirement at the commission that [a contract] go out for competitive bid. There’s an internal review process.”

Yes, another New York state legislator has been arrested on bribery charges. That's scarcely news. According to an article in today's New York Times, he was helping developers get permits to open adult day care centers in his district. In other words, he was doing local constituency work as a state legislator, using his influence rather than his votes.

But that's not all. What makes this bribery case unusually egregious is his introduction of a bill to place a moratorium on the construction of competing day care centers. The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York referred to the legislator's bill as “an especially breathtaking bit of corruption, even by Albany standards.”

Yesterday, Los Angeles' KCET-TV put up a database on it website to show who's giving to candidates in the current city and school board elections. You can see which city officials, business people, and others are giving, who's getting contributions from which zipcodes, and more. The database is a bit slow, at least today, just a few days before the first primary, but that's to be expected.