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, Jul. 7, 2011
Summer jobs are hard to come by, so you can imagine the response from the public when it was revealed that the mayor of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania hired his daughter and niece to work at city hall this summer.
Mayor Tom Leighton saw nothing wrong with the hires, which had been recommended by the city’s human relations manager. But the positions had not been posted—so the general public didn’t know about them- and the mayor signed the paperwork.
When I spoke with the reporter covering the story for the Citizen’s Voice, the first thing that came to mind was nepotism, a violation of ethics laws. The mayor was asked if he thought the decision was a violation of the state Ethics Act. “Not that I’m aware of, I don’t think.”
The reader comments in the article “Leighton rubber stamped family jobs,” decried the mayor’s actions and expressed concern that there might be other problems at city hall. “It’s now the time to look into other shady deals that come out of this mayor’s office,” wrote one reader. Another vowed to mail a complaint to the State Ethics Commission.
This type of negative response is only one of the consequences of nepotism, broadly defined as showing favoritism to members of the family. There are several other serious concerns:
• Fairness. Was the same opportunity given to all members of the public to apply for these positions? It looks like the mayor’s relatives had an advantage not offered to others.
• Competency. Favoritism undermines the confidence in the qualifications of the employee. In other words, was this person hired on the basis of ability and experience, or because of a family connection? Favoritism can also create tension among employees who may feel there is an unfair standard in performance reviews.
• Public trust. As the comments from the readers show, there is already skepticism about government employees, and nepotism only makes it worse.
To read more about favoritism and nepotism, including case studies, visit our Web site.
Wednesday, Jul. 6, 2011
With the conviction of former Governor Rod Blagojevich, Illinois has another scandal to overcome, and Governor Pat Quinn says he is ready to enact sweeping reforms. “This is my mission,” he said, “to reform our government so we do not have governors going to jail.”
Quinn is proposing an “ethics initiative” including reforms such as new limits on campaign fundraising as well as strengthening the Illinois Freedom of Information Act. He is even suggesting “giving the voters the opportunity at the ballot box to pass strong, no-nonsense ethics laws to protect the taxpayers and protect the public.”
But as an editorial in the Northwest Herald points out, Quinn has already made some decisions that call into question his true commitment to reform. “Quinn’s deeds must match his words.” In particular, the paper criticizes a legislative and congressional “remap” that was rejected by his Reform Commission.
Changing the ethical culture of a city or state with a history of corruption is a big job, and one that can only be accomplished with when leaders take strong actions that match their promises.
Tuesday, Jul. 5, 2011
California has nothing on Minnesota when it comes to legislators at loggerheads over the state budget.
The state shut down a variety of government services last week, and Governor Mark Dayton is now meeting with his colleagues to try to hammer out a deal to close a $5 billion gap in Minnesota’s two-year budget.
The shutdown has had a significant impact on the day-to-day business conducted by government. For example, you can’t take your driver’s test, state parks have been closed, and some 20,000 workers have been furloughed. But as humorist and author Garrison Keillor points out in his “Prairie Home Companion” program, Minnesotans are hard-working and creative, and are not going to let the shutdown ruin their summer.
I recently spent a few days visiting friends in the small city of Winona (population about 28,000). During my short stay I attended three free outdoor concerts, visited the county history museum, toured a refuge center for bald eagles, saw two outstanding plays staged by the Great River Shakespeare Company, enjoyed a performance at the Minnesota Beethoven Festival, and even attended a political rally. None of these events would have been possible without the vision and determination of a community that comes together for events as diverse as the Winona Steamboat Days and the Frozen River Film Festival.
Seeing the sense of civic pride, community cooperation, and a “can-do” attitude was inspiring. There are a number of empty retail buildigs downtown, and the city has suffered the downturn in the economy. So while the underwriters of the events included a few of the local banks and businesses along with Winona State University, the majority of the sponsors and volunteers were individuals, couples, and families.
There are many services we count on our government to provide, and it is my hope that Minnesota and all the states engaged in budget battles are able to find a fair and equitable compromise on their political differences.
Perhaps they should spend a few days in their home districts, and take some of that local “gumption” back to the statehouse.
Tuesday, Jun. 21, 2011
Boldly moving beyond their traditional issues, the United States Conference of Mayors voted overwhelmingly to seek the end to U.S presence in Afghanistan.
Meeting in Baltimore, the mayors were not so much making a political statement but a practical one. By bringing the troops home the mayors were asking President Obama to reinvest the billions spent on our overseas involvement to “meet vital human needs, promote job creation, rebuild our infrastructure, aid municipal and state governments, and develop a new economy based upon renewable, sustainable energy and reduce the federal debt.”
The annual meeting is usually a time for passing resolutions on issues such as energy, transportation, education, public safety, housing, and the like. This year the mayors acknowledged the harm that will come to cities when important federal programs are cut due to budget shortfalls.
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, Jun. 16, 2011
As the Rolling Stones say, “You can’t always get what you want.”
That is certainly the theme in Sacramento and cities across California as the state budget passed both houses by the June 15 deadline. But nobody was happy with the document, and Governor Jerry Brown promptly signed a veto.
Arguing that there would be no gimmicks in eliminating the state deficit, Brown said the document “ continues big deficits for years to come and adds billions of dollars of new debt. It also contains legally questionable maneuvers, costly borrowing, and unrealistic savings. We can—and must—do better.”
The $26 billion deficit has created friction between the Democrats and Republicans, with Governor Brown trying to reason with both sides. In the end, he criticized Republicans for refusing an important part of his plan: to let the voters have a say in how the balance will be achieved.
Brown wanted voters to decide on extending personal income and sales tax increases, a provision the Republicans would concede only if proposals such as a spending cap were included, along with reforms in both pension and regulatory programs.
This is the first time in 25 years the California lawmakers have been able to meet their constitutional deadline, but it may have been rushed due to a proposition passed last November that said: no budget on time, no paycheck. The voters will undoubtedly be unhappy with one concession by the governor that allows legislators to continue to be paid. Previously, State Controller John Chiang said he would permanently withhold lawmakers' pay and per diem starting June 16 if they did not pass a balanced budget.
So for now the Golden State will have to rely on another song from the Rolling Stones that laments, “I can’t get no satisfaction.”
Photo by freedom to marryavailable under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial License.
Wednesday, Jun. 15, 2011
The patchwork of conflict-of-interest laws is a major stumbling block for public officials at all levels of government. From lax to stringent, the ethical interpretation of a “conflict” has largely been relegated to the affected jurisdiction. Until now.
The Supreme Court has just made it very clear – to legislators and city councilmembers—that they cannot vote on matters where there is a conflict of interest, and they cannot claim “governmental votes cast by elected officials are free speech protected by the First Amendment.”
Writing that conflict-of-interest rules “have been commonplace for over 200 years,” Justice Antonin Scalia argued the right to vote in a legislative body “is not personal to the legislator but belongs to the people. The legislator has no personal right to it.”
The unanimous decision overturned an earlier ruling by the Nevada Supreme Court, stemming from a censure of a Nevada councilman by the Nevada Commission on Ethics. Councilman Michael Carrigan cast a vote in favor of a hotel and casino project that was backed by his campaign manager.
It is encouraging is to see an Ethics Commission willing to tackle these types of violations. Far too many commissions lack the authority or will to move on ethics charges.
You can read more about conflicts of interest, including case studies, by visiting http://www.scu.edu
Monday, Jun. 13, 2011
“Politicians Behaving Well” was the best headline I’ve read in months.
In his recent New York Times column, David Brooks takes us away from today’s salacious stories and reminds us of a time when discussions centered on good behavior rather than sex, lies, and Twitter exchanges.
He quotes Edmund Burke’s definition of political excellence, including the notion of self respect, the ability to have educated and reflective conversations, and, “to be led to a guarded and regulated conduct, from a sense that you are considered as an instructor of your fellow citizens in their highest concerns…”
Quaint as these notions sound today, it is worth reflecting on what it means to be honest and honorable, to be an individual of integrity and moral courage, and to accept the responsibility as well as the honor of public service.
Wednesday, Jun. 8, 2011
"Everything is changing. People are taking their comedians seriously and the politicians as a joke." —Will Rogers
There might have been time when I considered that humor, but in the past year I have seen so many public officials indicted, engage in pay-to-play schemes, take freebies from lobbyists, violate campaign finance laws, and admit to sexual scandals I’ve lost my sense of humor.
There have been periods in our recent history when public trust has been shaken by criminal or unethical behavior (Bill Clinton’s impeachment hearing, for example) but I have grown weary of the pot shots that reflect poorly on the other government employees– the people who work hard every day on behalf of the public.
The common phrase “close enough for government work” is an example of how we have changed our view of excellence. The original quote is said to be “good enough for government work,” and it described a product or action that was of the highest standards. The current, popular interpretation indicates shoddy or barely passable work.
So I’m calling for a moratorium on denigrating quotes, jokes, and bumper stickers that ridicule government. Things may not be perfect on the local, state, or federal level, but we don’t need to add to the cynicism.
Tuesday, Jun. 7, 2011
The slow and painful revelations about New York Representative Anthony Weiner have ignited a firestorm of reactions from the political parties, the press, and the public. (See these comments from the New York Times for a taste of the debate.) After days of insisting his account was hacked, explaining how photos can be manipulated or doctored, he admitted his three-year history of engaging in inappropriate on-line relationships with young women.
As I watched the story unfold I became more and more concerned about his inability to answer the straightforward questions put to him, and his attempts to pass this off as either a prank or the work of a hacker. I have watched virtually every video interview, including his final admission, and the one thing that I cannot understand is his continual insistence on the truth. In many of the press interactions he used phrases like “I want to be honest with you,” or “To be honest with you.” But he was not trying to be honest with anyone – he was clearly not telling the truth. In fact, he was lying. His lies are no less damaging than lies told by other elected officials when they are caught in bribery, extortion, election fraud, or other coverups.
A Chinese proverb says: Gold cannot be pure, and people cannot be perfect. We may not be able to expect perfection from our elected officials, but we expect and deserve honesty.