Judy Nadler, senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, looks at ethical dilemmas, scandals, and best practices in government.
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Thursday, Oct. 11, 2012
Beware who “friends” you on Facebook. Two Kansas legislative candidates found out the consequences of being “friended” by lobbyists: both were fined $100 by the state’s Governmental Ethics Commission.
“It’s the first time we’ve had a social media question,” according to Carol Williams, the executive director of the commission. “I think with the explosion of social media, this is something we’ll see far more.”
The posts were about fundraising events, a violation of the anti-solicitation laws of the state. One candidate, in defending the post, said although he listed the barbecue as a fundraiser, he didn’t give the location, or “specifically ask for money.” He said he was merely trying to find out how much food he would need.
The other candidate included a link to donate to her campaign on her Facebook page, but removed it upon hearing from the commission. She admits she “doesn’t know the occupations of all her Facebook ‘friends’ and hasn’t met some of them.”
Questions for discussion:
• As a public official, should you accept a “friend” request without knowing the individual or his or her occupation?
• Should candidates and officeholders keep separate Facebook accounts – family and friends in one, political activities and contacts in another?
• Do you think the individuals in this situation should have been fined?
Monday, Jun. 20, 2011
Soon after Sharon Bartlett announced she was running for the Huber city council she was approached by Ken MacDonald, a local campaign consultant. MacDonald said he was hardworking and “relentless” when working for his clients, stressing that he was especially successful in conducting opposition research. He mentioned a “bonus” he could offer as part of his contract: writing about the campaigns and the local political scene in his blog.
Sharon declined the offer, saying she had decided to count on her friends and family to help her with campaign strategy. MacDonald ended up working for her opponent, and began to increase his posts on “In the Kitchen with Ken” (which was subtitled “If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen”).
At first MacDonald used the blog to poke fun at her “homespun” campaign and make jokes about her height (she was just over 5 feet tall). As time went on the attacks increased. He wrote a blistering criticism of her remarks at a candidate forum and called her a “pathetic example of a candidate.”
Sharon decided to “toughen up” and ignore the lies that were being written about her. She assumed, as a political newcomer, this was just part of the “rough and tumble” world of local politics. Her supporters however, became enraged as each day a new post, unflattering Photoshop picture, or personal insult was published about her. More troubling were the articles that misrepresented her position on important city issues.
Sharon called a meeting of her campaign manager, family members, and key supporters to announce that she was not going to respond in any way. “The people who know me don’t believe anything he writes. I’m going to ignore it, and stay focused on the issues in this campaign. Besides, the voters are going to grow tired of this after a while.”
The next week she received a call from a friend asking her if she had “lost her mind” by creating a blog of her own. Apparently a new blog, titled “Krazy Ken” was posting dozens of insulting and hateful comments about Mr. MacDonald. Sharon was at a loss to figure out who created the blog. Everyone she spoke to was equally shocked, and she was receiving e-mails from voters criticizing her for this apparent act of retaliation. She began to worry about her chances of being elected.
The local newspaper picked up the story from an anonymous source and interviewed Mr. MacDonald and her campaign opponent who agreed “all indications point to Sharon."
The City of Huber had a Code of Ethics but it did not include any provisions for the actions of a candidate, his or her supporters, or “third party” independent involvement or expenditures. “We deal with folks once they have been sworn in to office,” said the city attorney. “During the campaign we support the right of free speech and maintain a ‘hands off’ approach.”
- What should Sharon do to reassure her supporters she did not initiate nor does she support the “Krazy Ken” blog?
- Is it possible Ken MacDonald himself writes “Krazy Ken” in order to draw attention away from the negative comments on his blog?
- Is this a case that a county or city ethics commission should handle?
- Should Sharon go to the media, including the editorial board, to denounce this? What else might she say to the media?
- Would talking to the press serve to highlight the mud-slinging and look like a face-saving effort?
- How can Sharon re-focus the campaign on important city issues rather than having this scandal overtake the campaign?
- What actions might be taken in the future to ensure campaigns in Huber were conducted in a more ethical manner?
Post your thoughts and suggestions so we can have a discussion of Sharon's options.
Thursday, Oct. 28, 2010
Like a marathon runner who sees the finishing line but still has a distance before breaking the tape, the last few days of a campaign can be the most difficult.
This year has been particularly grueling, with Tea Party rallies, candidates threatening reporters, and a senatorial write-in campaign adding to the already colorful mix of politics.
Perhaps that is why this weekend's dual rallies on the Washington Mall seem so perfectly timed. When Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert announced the event, I didn't imagine the U.S. Park Service would actually issue a permit. But they did, and this faux rally could be just what our country needs to counter the negativity that has dominated the past few months.
A friend told me last night (with chagrin) there are only six weeks until Christmas. I told her (with relief) there are only six days until the election.
It's all a matter of perspective, and I am hoping mine will improve after the rally and before November 2.
Tuesday, Oct. 26, 2010
Tracking spending in this election cycle is an accountant's nightmare.
With the restrictions on giving recently relaxed due to the Citizens United case, an unprecedented amount of money is flowing into congressional races, and much of that is being used for non-candidate spending.
The Campaign Finance Institute, an independent group affliated with the George Washington University, is releasing up-to-date information on what is being raised and spent both by candidates and independent parties.
Their Web site features sortable lists, breaks down expenditures by national party committees, and publlishes receipts and spending. The site also allows you to compare current data with historical statistics.
If you really want to follow the money, this is the site that will help you track the people and the parties behind the election.
Friday, Oct. 22, 2010
Libby Mitchell is running for governor of Maine. Her husband is a candiate for judge of probate. Her son is on the ballot for a seat on the Portland city council, and daughter Emily is vying to become a member of the state legislature.
The Republican party has filed an ethics complaint against Mitchell, saying a recent ad featuring her family runs afoul of Maine's "clean elections" public financing, as it shows other candidates.
Libby Mitchell says she cleared it with the state ethics commission, which will now be reviewing the complaint.
Few candidates campaign without showcasing their family, and the most traditional ads are of the candidate with spouse, kids, and the family dog. What makes this different?
I saw the ad. It features the candidate and members of her family explaining why they live in Maine. There was no electioneering by family members, and from my perspective it was just another "feel good" ad.
But the complaint underscores the disturbing trend of last-minute ethics complaints. While some may be legitimate, overall they come off as last-minute attacks serving to further confuse the electorate.
Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2010
As we head into the final days before the November election, candidates, political parties, and special-interest groups are pouring more and more money into last-minute efforts to win voter's approval.
Good luck with that. While the barrage of negative ads may be getting positive attention from the outlets running the ads (this is a great source of revenue for radio and television), most viewers and listeners consider the final days of the campaign season the worst of all worlds.
Rather than focusing on a candidate's own vision and record, most closing ads will tear down the opponnent. This serves to "dirty up" not only those involved in a particular race, but these negative ads contribute to voter apathy.
So while political pundits point out half-truths and outrigt lies, voters tune out and turn off amid the flurry of confusing and insulting ads.
It doesn't have to be this way. While some believe negative campaigning wins races, some of us hold on to the hope that candidates and their supporters will stand up to that assumption and set a new standard of ethical campaigning.
I'm in. Are you?
Friday, Oct. 8, 2010
Friday, Oct. 8, 2010
Who should investigate ethics complaints? The city of Riverside, California is trying to decide, as they amend changes to the city's ethics code.
One city commissioner examining the code said the current system of having council members decide ethics complaints about each other is like "putting the fox in the hen house." The committee selected to review the code is considering the appointment of an outside group to rule on complaints. It's an idea worth considering.
The very political nature of most ethics complaints means they are subject to suspicion -- both when they are filed and when an opinion is issued. Some cities shy away from ethics codes for this very reason: who can independently and fairly evaluate the ethics of elected and appointed public officials?
What do you think? Who is best for this job?
Thursday, Oct. 7, 2010
It seems reasonable to ask city employees and elected officials to conduct city business at city hall, and to likewise conduct personal and political business elsewhere.
More than just a reasonable request, this separation of public service and politicking is the law -- one that is debated at length during the campaign season.
A case in point is the city of Oakland, California, where a resident has filed a complaint with the Oakland Public Ethics Commission regarding a link between a councilmember's Web page and her campaign Web site.
More troubling is the accusation that her staff members were engaging in campaigning on city time, using city computers.
The pervasive nature of social nework sites such as Facebook leads us to forget when and where we are posting an update, uploading photographs, or commenting on an issue.
Some of the employees involved in this investigation say they were making innocent comments, and doing so during their breaks.
For better or for worse, the public believes (and has a right to believe) that when an employee is at City Hall during the workday that the employee is engaging only in the public's business.
I know it's not that easy to separate your personal and professional life. Some days there are emergency calls from the babysitter, or a return call from the doctor's office. But those interruptions should be the exception, not the rule.