Judy Nadler, senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, looks at ethical dilemmas, scandals, and best practices in government.
Thursday, Sep. 2, 2010
The relationship between money and politics should be a key part of news coverage, according to veteran CBS broadcaster Dan Rather.
In a recent interview Rather said journalists need to ask "Who is giving what to whom, expecting to get what?"
Rather, who retired from CBS and is now anchor and managing editor of HDNet's "Dan Rather Reports," says focusing political coverage on public opinion polling and "horse-race reporting" focuses only on a snapshot of a campaign, and does not fully inform the public.
The temptation is for journalists to become "transcribers who simply write down what they hear without asking tough questions." At age 78, Rather remains involved and passionate about news coverage, especially on political issues. An independent press, he says, "is the red beating heart of freedom and democracy, and it's absolutely essential to our system."
Wednesday, Sep. 1, 2010
Officeholders walk a fine line during campaign season. While busy making policy, they are also caught up in the politics of the election.
This is especially true in the case of a Chicago alderman who has been accused of using his city office and staff to further his state senate campaign.
Brian Doherty's fundraising letter asks that checks be sent to his aldermanic office, and there is evidence that other campaign activity occurs at the government address
In response to the charge that he is using taxpayer resources to further his political aspirations, Doherty insists he pays for his portion of the rent of a "political war room" and calls the arrangement "an office inside the office that is completely funded by politcal money."
I'm not sure which of those concepts is more troubling: campaigning in a public building, or trying to somehow pay the rent for a room within a room. Either way, there should be a complete and clear distance between the tasks of an officeholder and a candidate. The law requires a "firewall" and the taxpayers expect no less.
Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2010
The League of Women Voters and the Silicon Valley Collaborative for Reform are giving the public the opportunity to take on the role of a state legislator.
Understanding the California State Budget Crisis is a three-hour workshop designed to allow participants to study and decide how to balance the revenues and expenditures in the state.
The September 25 event, pegged as "Legislator for a Day," is sure to be challenging. Perhaps those who are elected to serve will gain insights from the citizen legislators.
Tuesday, Aug. 31, 2010
The myriad of ethics laws can be confusing, often leading to unintended violations by public officials. In an attempt to clear things up, the Office of Government Ethics plans to simplify its website to assist federal employees, the public, and the press understand the rules regarding conflicts of interest.
According to deputy director Joseph Gangloff, the current website, contains so many pages of documents that it is difficult to find the rules of professional conduct.
In addition to publishing the results of audits and reviews of federal agencies, the office now has a studio for producing on-line training videos.
The office has a staff of 80, and serves some 300,000 employees. Using the Internet and new technology should take some of the "mystery" out of the federal bureaucracy.
Monday, Aug. 30, 2010
We know there is a housing crisis in California, but Mark G. Yudof, president of the University of California, had a messy and costly "falling out" with his landlord.
The university president's private residence, whether for a public or private institution, is often used for large fundraising events, meetings with trustees, and other high-profile business and social occasions.
Rather than live at the presidental mansion (itself in need of $10 million in repairs), the Yudofs leased a 10,000-square-foot, four-story house and began upgrades, including air conditioning, 12 phones,and repair of a a two-person elevator. The university system also spent more than $127,000 in security for the two years the president was in residence.
The repairs were paid by a private endowment. According to the New York Times, most of the transactions were discussed and negotiated out of public view. The president recently moved to a new, smaller home and is paying a slightly lower rent.
The leader of a public university system, like his or her counterpart in cities, counties, and other legislative bodies, must set the tone in both word and deed. The message here was one of privilege rather than one of prudence.
Monday, Aug. 30, 2010
In city government, as with any other organization, it is always easier to function when you all get along. In Crescent City, California, the rancor on the city council led to a censure, which led to a lawsuit.
Suing your colleagues on the council as well as the city you have been elected to represent is damaging to the workings of the city and can prove to be an expensive distraction.
In this case, the claim is for $3.5 million in damages, a claim rejected by the city.
When disagreements occur within elected bodies, open and honest dialog are important first steps. In some cases, facilitators or mediators can come in to assist in helping to "rebuild" the team.
The cost in dollars to defend such a suit is likely to take away from other city priorities, but the real cost is the loss of public trust.
Friday, Aug. 27, 2010
While many individuals conduct business through the exchange of e-mails, three councilmembers have been recalled for doing just that.
A Grand Jury investigation showed the three had violated the Brown Act. a California open-meeting law that prohibits a majority of a governing body to discuss city business outside a public meeting. The rule has been the subject of greater scrutiny with the advent of e-mail, text messaging, and the use of Facebook and other social media.
The "sunshine" laws, as they are called in some states, are designed to ensure that the decsion-making process takes place in a public forum.
It is important for public officials to understand both the letter and spirit of the law with regard to openess and transparency. There are penalties for violating these rules -- including hefty fines from state ethics agencies. These councilmembers suffered the greatest punishment : they were thrown out of office by an overwhelming majority of voters.
Thursday, Aug. 26, 2010
The City Hall "beat" no longer exists at most newspapers, even as public scrutiny of government is at an all-time high. So it was with concern that I read of the decision by the University of Colorado, Boulder, to close their school of journalism and mass communications.
The chancellor says this is an attempt to keep up with changes in the industry. "News and communications transmission as well as the role of the press and journalism in a democratic society are changing at a tremendous pace. We must change with it."
Plans are to investigate restructuring the program to create a new school incorporating an advertising sequence, newswriting and reporting classes and television on-air and production classes.
As a journalism school graduate I applaud the vision to expand and keep up with the changes in the industry. I only hope that they don't drop some of the most fundamental classes, including how to report state and local news.
Wednesday, Aug. 25, 2010
We warn our children to be careful when posting information on Facebook or other social networking sites, but in Allentown, PA, it was a posting by the mayor's wife that triggered an ethics complaint.
After a blogger read Mrs. Pawlowski's description of the contractors who would be working in her basement, he posted a message asking if the proper permits were pulled for the work.
The ethics charges also question whether or not the mayor received a "questionably low" bid from the contractor, who does business with the city. Over a four-year period, employees of the construction firm contributed $10,000 to the mayor.
When you are a public servant, your private life often becomes the subject of public scrutiny. In this case, the political leader of the city cannot expect his constituents to pay for building permits if he has not obtained permits for for his own projects. When in doubt, it is wise to follow all the rules, lest you appear to be above the law.
Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2010
Misuse of city property comes in many forms. "Borrowing" the tools from the city's automotive shop or sending your holiday cards using city postage are obvious violations. But a recent incident in Tulsa shows there are other ethical lines that can easily be crossed.
By supplying his wife with business cards that include the official city seal and a city email address, Mayor Dewey Bartlett appears to have violated a city ordinance that restricts the use of the seal to activites that are official or further the work of the municipal government.
The issue came to light after an employee filed an anonymous complaint with Tulsa's Ethics Advisory Committee. The mayor has apologized, saying he didn't mean to offend anyone. A city official says the cards cost $16 a box.
The fact that her husband is thankful "for all the great work she has done for the community" does not excuse this lapse. The cost is not the relevant issue, although reaction from residents indicate that in this economy, any use of taxpayer dollars is important.
In a letter to employees explaining the newly mandated ethics training program, the mayor wrote "The standards of conduct for public employees are higher than those governing the private sector."
Agreed, and the mayor should be the first to model the highest ethical stardards and set the tone for all employees.