Judy Nadler, senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, looks at ethical dilemmas, scandals, and best practices in government.
Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2011
There was a time when "money laundering" was linked only to organized crime. Today, former House majority leader Tom DeLay was sentenced to prison for engaging in a money laundering scheme to funnel illegal corporate contributions to influence the 2002 election in Texas.
In addition to his three years for money laundering, the once powerful congressman (known as The Hammer) was also convicted of conspiracy. The charges could have led to a sentence of life in prison.
When he was convicted in November, DeLay called the action "the criminalization of politics."Even upon his sentencing, he maintains his innocence, saying, "I fought the fight. I ran the race. I kept the faith."
Monday, Jan. 10, 2011
I shuddered when I heard of the shootings in front of the Tucson, Arizona Safeway store. A congresswoman, holding a “meet and greet” with her constituents was the subject of an assassination attempt. Unthinkable.
In my role as mayor I spoke at community meetings, countless ribbon-cutting ceremonies, and even served once as a volunteer “bell ringer” for the Salvation Army red-bucket campaign. I walked precincts during my campaigns, and went door-to-door with a code enforcement officer to speak with residents in a low-income neighborhood. But the only place I felt the least bit vulnerable was at city hall, whether in my office or at a city council meeting. Somehow I thought discharging my official duties in a government building was more of a risk than assisting Girl Scouts sell cookies outside the library.
The painful truth is that we all take a risk each day: driving to work, walking to school, riding a bicycle to the park, taking the bus to buy groceries. .” Indeed, military, police, and fire professionals risk their lives every day for the public good.
In a message to alumni of the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard
, Dean David T. Ellwood noted that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was “engaged in public service and may have been targeted for that work.”
We owe all who serve our respect and gratitude. As Dean Ellwood says, “public service is a calling… It always requires sacrifice and often requires uncommon courage. Women and men who serve the public interest, who speak with integrity and intelligence, and who work for positive change are heroes.”
Friday, Jan. 7, 2011
As a former mayor, I contend there is no more challenging job for a public official than serving in local government. Constituents consider you the “go to” person to solve problems ranging from barking dogs and potholes to economic development and immigration reform.
The experience of being so close to the voters (you will probably see them in the grocery store, public library, or local restaurant) helps keep you focused on issues and “grounded.” Working with the city administrators and council colleagues sharpens leadership and communication skills.
These skills will be put to the test for 14 mayors or former mayors recently elected to higher office. According to the U.S. Conference of Mayors
, voters in Colorado, Connecticut, Tennessee, Rhode Island, New York, and Maine elected local officials to the top job. And in California, former Oakland mayor Jerry Brown will serve as governor, with former San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom as his lieutenant governor. Former Baltimore mayor Martin O’Malley was re-elected governor. The 112th Congress will include six new members who have come from the mayor’s office.
As these lawmakers take on their new responsibilities, I urge them to:
- set and maintain the highest ethical standards, and apply them to all
Thursday, Jan. 6, 2011
Efforts to reform state government are now taking shape across the country. For those who are newly elected, there is the challenge of making good on all those campaign promises. For the re-elected governors, the struggling economy does not allow time for celebration or complacency.
Regardless of your status – new or incumbent - I recommend you put ethics at the top of your agenda. Many of last year’s worst scandals involved governors and other state elected officials. Several lawmakers were forced to resign, and the efforts to uncover illegal and unethical behavior are being driven by an angry and disillusioned electorate.
Change will not come quickly or easily, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Today a reporter asked me which issue should a new governor attack first: ethics reform or the top statewide issues such as education and reviving the economy?
They cannot be separated. If there is a culture of ethics in the state legislature, there is a better chance that the laws that are passed have been openly and honestly debated, and that the decisions were made on merit. Transparency, accountability, and integrity will go a long way in the quest to restore the public’s confidence.
Wednesday, Jan. 5, 2011
A pledge is defined as a binding contract, a promise, or an agreement. The Republicans begin their majority rule in Congress today with “A Pledge to America
,” a document describing, “a new governing agenda.”
At a time when partisan divisiveness is causing even more public cynicism, I read carefully the language in the pledge. I do not deny that these are times that call for difficult decisions, reforms, and a renewed faith in government. But I don’t believe that words like “unchecked executive, compliant legislature, and overreaching judiciary” are the best way to describe those who don’t agree with you. Similar sentiments were expressed in the last Congress, and seem to be de rigueur.
How about a pledge from both sides of the aisle for greater respect for differing opinions? Is it too much to ask that our government leaders check their party affiliation at the door and work collaboratively to address the tough issues?
With each change in majority/minority status in Congress we have the chance to do things differently. We have the ability to return to civility, cooperation, and commitment.
As the pledge states, “to whom much is given, much is expected.”
Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2011
I read hundreds of newspaper stories every week about government ethics, but sometimes it is the comments by readers that are most illuminating.
The training, to be conducted by the Commission on Public Integrity, is a response to Cuomo’s pledge to make ethics a hallmark of his new administration. “Top government employees should have no questions, no gray areas, no possibility of confusion regarding what is proper and what is not.”
Within an hour of the posting readers began commenting. While some were congratulating the governor on his commitment to ethics, others took a more cynical view. “Shouldn’t these people already be ethical???” wrote someone named Dave. “That’s the problem to begin with, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.”
Another comment, from “Olaf Fubb” argued that just because people are required to take the training doesn’t mean “that all will pass or even show up.” Another reader wanted to know if this would be “real training or some web-based e-course.”
Using names such as Taxpayer advocate, madasahatter, and Question Mark, the remarks reflect the type of skepticism that can accompany required ethics training. Even someone who posted under the name “hope” expressed reservations, writing “this is an important but symbolic gesture…mandatory attendance at ethics training without some strong accountability is not going to change that (behavior) but it sure sounds good.”
I believe in ethics education, and I know it can make a difference. What do you think?
Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2011
January ushers in change, and that was felt in a dramatic way in Cuyahoga County, Ohio,
where a new form of government was in place Monday, January 3.
The county, formerly led by just three commissioners, is now governed by 11 elected officials and a new county executive. The change was prompted by a history of corruption that led to a ballot measure creating the new structure.
“Integrity and professionalism in our work is an urgent priority for me and should be a key priority for all of us in Cuyahoga County government,” according to Ed FitzGerald, the new top administrator. “We should not delay in establishing a higher standard in the performance of all our duties.”
In addition to restructuring the board, the year begins with a new ethics code requiring all employees to report “wrongdoing or unethical conduct, whether by a fellow employee or outsiders.” There is also a proposal to establish a code of conduct for vendors doing business with the county.
Monday, Dec. 20, 2010
Accepting tickets to sporting events seems to be the “Achilles’ heel” of many elected officials. The excitement of hosting the Super Bowl, Olympic games, or NHL playoffs can prove to be very tempting – especially if everybody does it.
So it is no surprise to learn that New York Governor David Patterson
was caught soliciting and accepting 5 tickets to the 2009 World Series, compliments of the New York Yankees. The state Commission on Public Integrity levied a $62,125 fine.
Patterson, who says he always “intended to pay for them,” was also charged with lying to the commission when neither his staff nor the Yankees would back up that story.
Because the baseball team has numerous issues before the state government the conflict of interest is obvious. The more damaging part of this story is Patterson’s deliberate attempt to cover up, including post-dating a check.
While some have criticized the amount of the fine, the commission said ethics rules must be applied “exactingly at the top.”
“The moral and ethical tone of any organization is set at the top,” according to the commission report. “Unfortunately, the governor set a totally inappropriate tone by his dishonest and unethical conduct. Such conduct cannot be tolerated by any New York State employee, particularly our governor.”
Friday, Dec. 17, 2010
When something goes wrong or a student makes a mistake, educators are likely to ask, “what can we learn from this experience?”
In looking ahead to the government ethics stories I predict will be in the headlines in 2011, I’m reflecting on what went wrong this year and trying to imagine what we have learned, and how or if things will change.
Reviewing the past is easy; predicting the future is difficult. Nevertheless, here are the five topics I believe we will be talking about in the months ahead:
· Conflicts of interest. We used to think that a conflict was clearly defined and applied to an individual and a vote. Things have changed. We are now seeing all kinds of conflicts of interest surfacing – institutional, personal, financial, political. The “sleeper” is the conflict that exists when public officials are involved in foundations, non-profits, and similar organizations that benefit the community but also benefit the office holder.
· Campaign finance and the influence of money. Record amounts of money were spent across the nation on the November election, and a significant portion came through 501c 4 organizations that are not subject to the strict reporting requirements we need in campaigns. And while the defeat of Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina in their self-funded campaigns may lead us to conclude that personal wealth cannot buy an election, there are results in other races that prove otherwise.
· Increased use of social media. At the Conference on Governmental Ethics Laws (COGEL) conference I attended recently, there was much talk about the use of social media in government and politics. I predict more government agencies, officeholders, candidates, and voters will be using Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms. This presents many opportunities, but also many challenges. As long as comments can be made anonymously and statements posted without any verification as to factual content, we are bound to have problems. And public officials will need to remember that a majority of councilmembers chatting on Facebook about city business is no different than conducting business behind closed doors – it’s illegal.
· The private lives of public officials. While sexual misconduct has captured most of the headlines in the past, I expect there will be some new subjects that surface in this area of personal conduct. Increasingly, the background and history of an individual can come back to haunt, even 20 or more years later. (And there are many stories captured on cell phones that make it to YouTube.) There are also high-stakes financial dealings that may receive more attention in the coming year.
· Partisan polarization. The emergence of the Tea Party has created an unprecedented degree of chaos and partisan bickering on the local, state, and national level. Budgets have been stalled, bills have languished, and rhetoric has overtaken honest debate. I’ve heard people talk about the “super minority” and “super majority” in terms that signal a long, difficult legislative year ahead.
Let me know what you think will be making headlines next year. Post your comments here or on my Twitter account : her_honor.
Thursday, Dec. 16, 2010
As I reflect on all that has transpired in 2010 there are so many scandals to choose from I honestly had a tough time deciding on the top five contenders for my "worst behavior in government list." Of more concern, it was difficult to identify a five really great things happening in the area of government. (I sincerely hope that changes in the coming year.)
I’ll begin with the worst so that we can end on a positive note. The list is incomplete and in no particular order.
· Pay scandal in Bell, California. News that the city manager was drawing more than $800,000 in salary sent shock waves throughout the country and made international news. Made elected officials and administrators look like crooks.
· On-going scandal involving former Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick. (This is so big it counts as two.)
Currently serving time in prison for earlier offenses, Kilpatrick is now the subject of a new, 38-count indictment by the Federal Grand Jury. A six-year investigation showed he and his father along with other city officials engaged in fraud, corruption, racketeering, extortion, bribery, and other crimes. Using both his former state office and his power as mayor Kilpatrick is accused of extorting millions of dollars from contractors and abusing the public’s trust. As U.S. Attorney Barbara McQuade put it: “If you steal from the taxpayers, you are going to be held accountable. Getting out of office does not get you off the hook.”
· Supreme Court decision on Citizens United. This action allows millions of dollars spent on campaigns to go unreported, and opens the door for further erosion of transparency and accountability in political campaigns.
· Representative Charles Rangel. After serving decades in Congress, Rangel stood before his colleagues and was publicly rebuked. The lesson here: no matter how much you do to help your constituents, you have ethical obligations as an elected official. No one is above the law, or above the ethical standards we expect in public servants.
- After years of corruption, Alabama has adopted 7 ethics bills. Rather than accept the “lame duck” status of an outgoing governor, Bob Riley pushed for adoption of the legislation, which was passed at 3 a.m.
- More government agencies embrace transparency. A new “app” called iOpenGov gives free access to California laws on open government and related issues. A good idea for the other 49 states.
- Jacksonville, Florida caps a multi-year effort by passing a charter change (with a 17-0 vote) that incorporates ethics provisions removed in the 1970s. Among the new provisions: Establishing an ethics commission with more independence; having the ethics officer report to the ethics commission; and creating a system for commission fines and penalties. This grass-roots effort is a model for other cities hoping to unite diverse constituencies to encourage positive change.
- The election of Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski. This has nothing to do with the candidates or their issues – I just think it’s great to have the voters take the time and make the effort to write “Murkowski” on their ballots.
- The Jon Stewart – Steven Colbert rally on the Great Mall in Washington, D.C. I’m betting some people were more excited about this event than they were about any inauguration. Not only did the rally raise awareness of the need for citizen involvement and civil discourse, it showed that politics and public policy could actually be fun, if not funny.
Tomorrow I’ll give my predictions for 2011. In the meantime, let me know what you think of the list. Do you agree? Disagree? What would you add or subtract?