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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.

  •  Where Do You Look For Hope and Inspiration?

    Thursday, Sep. 20, 2012

    Some days it can be depressing to be in public service. The economic picture is bleak, headlines are not always kind, and stories of corruption seem to dominate the news. But there is hope – in the students of our colleges and universities.

    This week I spoke with a class at the Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California in Berkeley. These students, pursuing masters in public policy and doctoral degrees, are passionate about a cross-section of our most pressing problems: education, fiscal reform, health care policy, environmental issues, the criminal justice system, and more.

    My session was one of several I do each year—for Dr. David Kirp’s class in Berkeley, for Governor Michael Dukakis when he teaches at UCLA, and for undergraduate classes here at Santa Clara University. In November I will be talking about government ethics at Yeshiva University in New York.

    My purpose is two-fold. First, to share with students the practical side of public life – what is like to run for office, face and think through ethical dilemmas, build a culture of ethics in an organization, and enhance public trust.

    The second reason is more personal. I enjoy the intellectual curiosity, the stimulating questions, and the hint of skepticism. But most of all, I love to look at each and every one of these students and imagine a mayor, city manager, policy advisor, governor – maybe one might even go into government ethics.

    The future is in the hands of our students, and they provide both the hope and inspiration that keeps me so committed to good government.

  •  Is It Ethical To Require Flu Shots?

    Tuesday, Sep. 18, 2012

    “Don’t forget to get a flu shot.”

    This time of the year physicians, pharmacies, schools, nursing homes, and hospitals are among those calling for certain populations to get a flu shot. So it was disappointing to learn that this simple and effective way of preventing flu has been called “really demeaning and insulting to people’s intelligence.”

    That quote, from the president of the California Nurses Association is in response to a new mandate that requires health care workers in Contra Costa and Santa Clara counties to get flu shots or wear a mask at work the entire flu season. Those regulations are already in effect in San Francisco and Sacramento counties, and Alameda county has the proposal under consideration.

    “This is really to protect the most frail, and persons at highest risks,” said Dr. Marty Fenstersheib, health officer for Santa Clara county. He says the move, mandated for all employees who are in contact with patients in hospitals, clinics, ambulance companies, adult day health centers, nursing homes and other health facilities, is necessary. “The vaccine compliance rates in health care workers are just too low.”

    Dr. Margaret McLean, director of bioethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics said, “Getting the flu vaccine or wearing a mask is a common sense way to fulfill the professional obligation to do no harm.” Additional information, including “An Ethical Analysis of Preventing the Spread of Seasonal Influenza” is available on the Center’s website.

  •  Taxpayers Get The Bill For Some Questionable Expenses

    Tuesday, Sep. 11, 2012

    Elected officials are likely to tell you that their jobs are 24/7, and that they must be available at any time to interact with the voters. I disagree.

    While the oath of office commits an individual to serve the public, it does not anticipate round-the-clock access, especially for directors elected to special districts, often a part-time responsibility.

    A recent investigative report showed elected officials from the Santa Clara Valley Water District in California, were reimbursed for things ranging from installation of in-home Internet access to attendance at social events. The NBC Bay Area reporters found not only were board members being paid for “official” board meetings, they were also charging for events where water district matters were not discussed. (They are also paid $286 when they meet with the district CEO.)

    The district allows a “per-diem fee for attendance at events, as each member determines will best enable them to serve the District.” This broad definition has led to board members charging the public for membership fees in a Rotary Club, professional engineering societies, attendance at banquets and picnics, and the like. Directors  justify such expenses as a way of "interacting" with their constituents.

    Two directors “maxed out” on the amount they could charge to the public for meeting fees alone: $34,323.60.   Director Patrick Kwok received $57,462 last year for meetings plus benefits and travel.

     Public scrutiny will lead to changes in some of these expenses, as many are unjustified.  A new practice will require posting on the Web this type of  spending by directors each quarter. Much more can and should be done to decrease spending and increase transparency.

  •  Changing The Culture Of Corruption

    Monday, Sep. 10, 2012

    To readers, the headline “Trenton Mayor Arrested in Corruption Investigation” may elicit a ho-hum reaction, but to those who care about ethics in government, it was just another painful reminder that some elected officials continue to use their powerful offices as places to steal from the public.

    Mayor Tony Mack, his brother, and a sandwich shop owner have been accused of “conspiring to obstruct, delay and affect interstate commerce by extortion under color of official right.”

    The investigation began only two months after the mayor took office in September 2010, according to a United States attorney. The sting involved Mr. Mack using his influence to support a parking garage. But the project was created by the investigators, and caught all three men in a series of lies and bribes. In 2009, a similar sting code -named “Bid Rig,” led to charges against 46 people. Those bribes were also attached to fictitious development projects.

    Changing the culture of corruption in any organization is challenging. Changing the culture of corruption in a state where people openly brag, “We’re corruptible” seems impossible. But thorough investigations, vigorous prosecutions, and increased public scrutiny and media attention are all steps in the right direction.

  •  The Ethics Of Pension Reform

    Tuesday, Aug. 28, 2012

    My recent post on public pensions deals with the relationship between the burden of the payouts and the recent number of municipal bankruptcies.

    In this op-ed I wrote for Newsday, I go into greater detail on how to look at pensions from an ethical perspective.

  •  Public Pensions And Municipal Bankruptcies

    Thursday, Aug. 23, 2012

    Wall Street has taken notice of municipal bankruptcies, and now it appears that the courts may become involved as well.

    The question is whether or not pension commitments can be annulled when bond insurers come asking for their payments. In a column published by the Sacramento Bee, Stockton is used as an example of a city that borrowed $125 million from the bond market five years ago to cover increases in pension benefits. The city pays $29 million a year to the California Public Employees’ Retirement System to cover its annual pension obligation.

    Stockton  has filed for bankruptcy, but to date has not put CalPERS, the nation’s largest public pension fund, on its bankruptcy list of creditors. Columnist Jon Ortiz writes, “Bond insurers say the city should cut CalPERS payments along with those to other creditors.”

    Moody’s credit rating agency estimates 10 percent of California’s cities “have declared financial crisis.” Even Warren Buffet has left the municipal bond insurance business, signaling that the once-reliable municipal bonds are now risky business. Ultimately we will witness a battle between the bankruptcy law experts and those who are defending public pension obligations.

    The future of education, public safety, libraries, and many more basics are at stake. At the end of the day, I don't think either side will be able to declare victory.

  •  Effective Ethics Commissions Must Be Well Funded and Independent

    Tuesday, Aug. 21, 2012

    “A parade of state legislators has marched past the state Ethics Commission on their way to federal and state prisons.”

    Thus begins an editorial in the Times-Tribune commenting on the state of government ethics in Pennsylvania. The state, whose motto is "Virtue, Liberty, Independence," was given a “generous” C+ in a recent “report card” on government integrity in the United States.

    Two conflicts are in play. First, the governor and other legislative leaders are in charge of selecting members of the Ethics Commission, and these individuals are not confirmed by the legislature at large.

    Second, the current budget reflects significant cuts – what the editorial characterizes as  an attempt to keep the commission “on a short leash.” A $197,000 cut under Governor Ed Rendel won approval; Governor Tom Corbett’s effort to reduce the $1.7 million budget by another $88,000 was defeated. The money allocated to ethics is insufficient give the size and political culture of the state.

    Pennsylvania has a history of ethical misconduct in government. Numerous senators are facing federal corruption charges, and some have already been convicted. Absent the criminal charges, there have been clear ethical violations.

    Reformers have introduced a bill to create an independent Public Integrity Commission, one with greater power. The legislation would create a 15-member committee with ethics law experts, a district attorney, and “good-government advocates.” That bill is “languishing” in the legislature.

    An ethics commission is only effective if it is truly independent. I agree with the paper: “Such a watchdog agency would be a far more effective deterrent than the current agency. It should be an obvious reform with the state government bedeviled by corruption.”

  •  Public Hearings Must Be Made Accessible To The Public

    Tuesday, Aug. 14, 2012

    Refusing to allow the televising of an important tax hearing last week adds to the cynicism about transparency in government.

    California senate leader Darrell Steinberg has apologized for barring television cameras in a hearing on November ballot measures. The legislator said he acted “out of concern the hearing would provide fodder for political ads.” In an open apology before reporters, Steinberg told them “It wasn’t right and won’t happen again as long as I am here.”

    The situation has all the marks of a political action. Steinberg supports Proposition 30, a measure to increase taxes. Individuals opposed to the measure were expected to testify. An opponent of the proposition, Senator Lois Wolk, was shocked to learn the hearings were not going to be televised. As chair of the Senate Governance and Finance Committee, she said the decision was made without prior notice or her approval.

    “I strongly disagree with the decision, as the hearing was held to fulfill a state-mandated discussion on the initiatives so as to inform the public.” An audio was available over the Internet, but the purpose and rule of the laws are to provide the greatest access and transparency available.

    That either side would sidestep that mandate because of a fear that excerpts might be used in campaign commercials is a sad commentary on the state of elective politics.



  •  Does Public Financing of Campaigns Make Sense Today?

    Monday, Aug. 13, 2012

    In an effort to make it easier for newcomers to have a chance to win in the upcoming election, the taxpayers of San Francisco are financing qualifying candidates.

    The program is administered by the city’s Ethics Commission, and allows challengers for a seat on the board of supervisors to receive a maximum of $155,000; incumbents have a cap of $152,500. More than $4 million is available in the account, according to John St. Croix, executive director of the commission. A payment of $248,867 was made Friday to five candidates who have qualified.

    In order to be eligible, says St. Croix, the individual “must demonstrate that he or she has received at least $10,000 in qualifying contributions from at least 100 individuals who reside in the city.” The threshold for incumbents is slightly different: they must raise $15,000 in qualifying contributions from at least 150 residents.

    A base grant of $20,000 is granted once the candidate qualifies, with additional amounts given based on the results of private fundraising.

    Discussion questions:

    • With cities and counties facing bankruptcy, does public financing of campaigns make economic sense?
    • Do you support public financing of political campaigns? Why or why not?
    • Should there be an “ethics clause” that requires the public money be returned if the candidate engages in negative campaigning?
    • Should the money be returned in the case of campaign ethics violations?
  •  Nepotism In The Least Likely Place

    Monday, Aug. 6, 2012

    If you can’t trust the U.S Justice Department (DOJ) to know the difference between right and wrong, whom can you trust?

    The agency’s inspector general said, “high-level officials in the Justice Management Division, or DMJ, violated the federal nepotism statute for advocating for the appointment of their own relatives to positions in the Justice Department.” In one case, “two senior officials simultaneously attempted to assist each other’s relative in securing DOJ employment.”

    Unfortunately, this most recent revelation is the third in the past eight years. Jobs included clerkships and internships, with salaries ranging from $27,000 to $40,000.

    A spokeswoman for the attorney general states “this kind of behavior will not be tolerated, and the department must maintain a zero tolerance policy and swift and decisive action must be taken to deal with those involved in these activities.

    Nepotism such as the type uncovered at the Justice Department is illegal. To learn more about why nepotism in government presents a serious ethical problem, visit the Ethic's Center website.

    Discussion questions:

    1. Helping a friend or family member find a summer or permanent job is commonplace in the sector. Why is the standard different in the public sector?

    2. Should elected officials who assist in securing jobs for family members be required to disclose their actions?

    3. Does an appointed municipal employee have an obligation to disclose that he or she was instrumental in hiring a family member?

    Post your responses in the comment section of this blog.

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