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Her Honor

Judy Nadler, senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, looks at ethical dilemmas, scandals, and best practices in government.

  •  Resources on Government Ethics

    Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2014

    After 11 years as Senior Fellow in Government Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics I am moving on to work directly with public agencies as a consultant.

    Although I will no longer be posting on Her Honor, I encourage you to visit this site when you are looking for analysis of issues or case studies on government ethics and ethical leadership.

    The tags will direct you to topics ranging from airport screening to lobbying to public pensions and more. The Markkula Center website is rich with content, and also includes references to resources on local, state, and national issues.

    Be sure to check the podcasts and videos for interviews, and contact the Center should you have any questions.


  •  What Matters Most?

    Monday, Jun. 3, 2013

    Conflicts of interest? Bankrupt cities? Public Pensions? Campaign finance? These are just a few of the many topics covered in this blog and in the many other materials available on the Markkula Center's website.

    I will be taking a break this summer from posting, but encourage you to visit previous posts and submit your comments.

    You'll also find an extensive collection of ethics cases, scenarios, and our Twenty Unavoidable Ethical Dilemmas document.


  •  Corruption In Bell Confirmed By Jury

    Thursday, Mar. 21, 2013

    Five of six former Bell, California councilmembers were found guilty of stealing millions of dollars from the city, the latest chapter in a story that triggered an investigation of local government salaries across the country.

    Although there are only 35,000 residents in the southern California city, the former mayor and council drew an annual salary of $100,000 by creating and serving on various boards and authorities that were found to be a “front” for exceeding the city charter’s salary limit of $8,076.

    Their justification is one heard frequently from public officials: we work hard, spend long hours, and often spend nights and weekends conducting duties as city councilmembers. While this may be true, these excuses cannot justify taking more than $1.3 million for their part-time positions.

    Perhaps the worst blow to the city and to local government was the outrageous and illegal activities of the former city manager, Robert Rizzo. His salary of $800,000 (double the salary of President Obama) made him not only rich but also powerful. Testimony from city employees highlighted the fear they felt in disobeying his orders.

    In fact, the city clerk testified in the trial that she “signed minutes of meetings she never attended and that she was ordered to provide false salaries to a resident who made a public records request.” Rizzo and his assistant Angela Spaccia, will face a jury in the coming months.

    While residents expressed relief at the verdicts, the story is far from over. Not only does the city need to regain public trust, the rest of the cities across the state and the nation must pay close attention to this cautionary tale, and ensure that checks and balances are in place to avoid corruption.

  •  Phoenix Wins Transparency Award For City Website

    Monday, Mar. 18, 2013

    Using a 10-point “transparency checklist,” Sunshine Review has awarded the City of Phoenix it’s “Sunny Award” for outstanding transparency on a local government website.

    They city’s site has won the award for the past four years, and is one of only 247 state and local government organizations to earn the accolade. More than 1,000 qualified sites were reviewed by the non-profit organization that dedicates its work to local and state government transparency.

    The Phoenix website ranked high for information on budget, taxes, elected officials, audit reports, public meetings, public records, and building and zoning. Vice Mayor Bill Gates was proud of the accomplishment. “It is great to once again have this third-party acknowledgement that the city’s website continues to offer residents a clear view inside City Hall.”

    Michael Barnhart, president of Sunshine Review, says the award-winning government websites “empowers citizens and keeps government accountable to the people.”

  •  Lobbyists Target School Officials for Boost In Facility Construction

    Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013

    “Quid pro quo never comes without a price.”

    This comment, posted on the Orange County Register by reader Theresa Santoro, summarizes the ethical problems that can occur when business and corporate interests host an event for public officials.

    According to the newspaper, the annual conference of the Coalition for Adequate School Housing (C.A.S.H) brings together corporations and employees of 500 school districts. “Bankers, lawyers, architects and companies hoping to profit from school construction are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars this week to court public education officials at a three-day gathering in Sacramento.” Some of the workshops deal with how to pass bond issues for new school construction.

    How can the school’s decision makers be objective after enjoying meals, cocktail receptions, and rounds of golf (including a gift bag and “high quality golf shirt” paid for by the sponsors of the meeting)?

    Tracy Westen, formerly of the Center for Governmental Studies in Los Angeles, said there is “a danger that the company that has handed out money will be looked at more favorably” when it comes to awarding contracts.

    Santoro’s comments illustrate the fundamental issues of conflicts of interest: “Builders should not be allowed to endorse those running for school boards, and school boards should not be allowed to take fancy trips and be wined and dined by builders and bankers. It all starts with a nice free glass of Chardonnay on a golf course.”

  •  Ethics Code Overlooked In Contracts For City Projects

    Tuesday, Feb. 19, 2013

    Although the Augusta, Georgia ethics code says it is illegal, at least one commissioner has confirmed his company has been a subcontractor on a city project.

    “The amount of money is not that much (that) we make for profit,” says Commissioner Wayne Guilfoyle. His tile company did work at the airport--$70,000 worth of work -- in direct violation of the city’s code of ethics. “The bidding process started before I came on board,” he explained. “I didn’t hide anything from the media or any one of my colleagues. I abstained on every issue.”

    The code states clearly “It shall be unethical for any Augusta-Richmond County Employee or public official to transact in an business or participate directly or indirectly in a procurement contract.”

    Commissioner Alvin Mason responded by saying, “There shouldn’t be a single commissioner up here benefiting directly or indirectly dealing with government dollars.” There may be others who are also working for the city, according to the report by the television station WRDW. The commissioners are responsible for deciding how to deal with the violations.

    Discussion questions:

    • Is it enough to recuse yourself from a vote when your company is benefiting from a public contract?
    • What action do you think the commissioners should take?
  •  Local Parking Ticket Spurs Supreme Court Case

    Thursday, Feb. 14, 2013

    How much information is necessary to include on a parking ticket?

    In Palatine, Illinois, the ticket slipped under the windshield wiper contains more than just the nature of the violation. It also includes such personal information as your address, driver’s license number, date of birth, sex, height, and weight. Tickets also spell out the details of the infraction: location of the vehicle, make, year and VIN number, as well as the license plate number and expiration date.

    When Jason Senne returned to his car to find the parking citation he was outraged. Five hours had passed since the slip of paper was placed on his car, and in a class action complaint against the town, he says it violated the “Driver’s Privacy Protection Act by leaving the ticket on his car after printing his personal information on it.”

    Senne estimates Palatine issued more than 8,000 tickets over the past four years, pushing the  damages request to upwards of $80 million. He is also seeking “punitive damages, attorney’s fees, costs and equitable relief.”

    A federal judge dismissed the case, and an appeals court panel agreed that the “disclosure” was permissible under the law. But when the full circuit court of appeals reversed that decision, they indicated, “any information on the ticket not necessary to process it was a violation of federal law.”

    The argument in favor of the practice is that there is no indication that anyone has ever used the personal information and that the ruling is “unlikely to do any good,” and is “bound to do harm.” The court has expressed concern that “the floodgates of class action litigation will open across the country” should the appeals court decision be upheld. The U.S. Supreme Court is considering whether or not to take the case.

    What do you think?

    Should local police agencies be allowed to include detailed information from the state motor vehicles records on documents like parking tickets?

    Does the benefit outweigh the risk?

  •  "Slush fund" or legitimate fund?

    Monday, Jan. 7, 2013

    Every penny counts, especially when it belongs to taxpayers.

    That’s why the Arizona Republic has written a series of stories about money council members are spending on items ranging from monogrammed shirts to candy for a parade.

    In reviewing the “discretionary funds” in 10 Arizona cities, the paper discovered “$1.2 million in taxpayer funds for meals, travel, construction projects, iPads, and other items."  While the money is sometimes used to support office-holder expenses such as appreciation plaques and picture frames, the proponents  say the accounts also come in handy for supporting charities and to pay for lobbying trips. In one case a councilwoman used $18,138 from her discretionary funds to “pave a quarter-mile-long, dead-end neighborhood street.”

    What do you think?

    Read more about how individuals are spending public funds  and post your comments here.

  •  Independent Group Files Ethics Complaint

    Thursday, Dec. 20, 2012

    A Georgia councilmember who wore his name badge while testifying at another city’s council meeting is facing ethics charges for violating a section of the code of ethics by seeking to “secure special privileges and exemptions for others."

    Snellville councilmember Mike Sabbagh is the subject of a complaint by Gwinette Ethics, Inc., an organization that describes itself as “a non-profit corporation composed of local citizens who are dedicated to exposing ethics lapses both in government, and in organizations that clog our county’s judicial system with capricious and baseless lawsuits and complaints.” Both cities are located in Gwinette County.

    The group alleges that Sabbagh appeared before the Marietta, Georgia city council in October 2011 on behalf of a friend who had an item pending. Sabbagh urged the council to work with his friend to allow the completion of a controversial building. In January 2012 the Snellville council investigated the ethics of the appearance, and tabled the matter after Sabbagh apologized. “I was simply trying to convince the city of Marietta to allow the owner of the building some extra time, as the economy was hard," Sabbagh told Snellville Patch. "I didn’t go in there as an authority figure, I went in there as a citizen. They knew who I was."

    What do you think? Did Sabbagh cross the line by appearing with his name badge? The Snellville city council has already dealt with this issue. What should they do with this complaint?

    Post your comments here.

  •  Sweet Deal On Hotel Suites Triggers Ethics Review Board Action

    Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012

    The San Antonio Ethics Review Board has ruled that taking free or discounted tickets to a hotel is a violation that should be investigated by law enforcement.

    According to board chair Arthur Downey, current and former city employees accepted rooms at the Grand Hyatt Hotel – rooms known as the Alamodome suites, that are valued at $900. While the individuals were disciplined in July, there were no criminal charges filed. The district attorney has confirmed an investigation is under way.

    The Ethics Review Board took action in response to a citizen’s complaint—not about the hotel rooms per se, but because the city didn’t take any action when the information was made public.

    Michael Cuellar, the complainant, was also concerned that city manager Sheryl Sculley didn’t follow an administrative directive that requires an independent audit or outside investigation in cases such as this.

    The city’s Office of Municipal Integrity initially investigated the case, and the publicity surrounding the results prompted the district attorney’s office to begin a preliminary inquiry before the Ethics Review Board met.

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