Judy Nadler, senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, looks at ethical dilemmas, scandals, and best practices in government.
Monday, May. 16, 2011
I am taking a short break from the blog and will resume in early June. But just because I'm pausing, it doesn't mean you should.
Why don't you take a few minutes to post your comments on the recent headlines? I'll look forward to reading them and responding in a couple of weeks!
Thursday, May. 12, 2011
A $1 million fine has been imposed on the Fiesta Bowl, following an investigation of serious ethical and legal “irregularities.” Before you think that is a huge penalty, read further.
The Bowl Championship Series (BCS) committee will allow the Fiesta Bowl to continue to be part of the lucrative bowl game business, with very few restrictions. In addition to the fine, the Bowl must hire a new executive director and remove all board members who were involved in “inappropriate behavior.” The organization will also need to conduct an annual audit and make supervisory changes in their existing audit firm.
“I think the message is, they have cleaned house and addressed their problems,” said BCS Executive Director Bill Hancock. Meanwhile, the Arizona Attorney General’s Office is conducting a criminal investigation, and the IRS is reviewing the non-profit status of the organization.
An investigative report details how the former chief executive officer John Junker regularly went on trips with his family, donated to charities, and used Bowl money for other personal uses. One especially outrageous expenditure was for Junker’s 50th birthday party, held at a Pebble Beach golf course. The board chair at the time attended the $32,188 event, although he maintains he never saw or authorized the party’s budget. A golf outing with a lobbyist held to conduct “very important and serious talks” cost the Bowl account more than $4,000. Golf outings were commonly known as the time for “long-range thinking.”
Although I am not a big football fan, I am a big fan of ethical conduct, especially when the questionable actions of the Fiesta Bowl governing board include alleged campaign finance violations, illegal expenditures, high-priced junkets with elected officials, and poor oversight.
College bowl games are big business. According to Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, “The Fiesta Bowl is a signature sporting event and critical economic driver for our travel and tourism industry.” In fact, the state is estimated to make tens of millions of dollars each year from bowl proceeds.
But we are--or should be --talking about college football, about the athletic, academic, and character development of young men. Instead it all comes down to money. What kind of message is this sending to the athletes and their supporters?
I cannot help wonder how much politics and money had to do with the decision to keep the Bowl and have $1 million directed to youth organizations. The non-profits who operate the event have more than $22 million in net assets, and any profits are supposed to go to charity anyway, under current governing rules.
The blow to the state economy if the Fiesta Bowl was canceled would be significant. But the damage to the public trust by “looking the other way” is likely to lead to even more ethical lapses.
Tuesday, May. 10, 2011
California teachers have declared a “State of Emergency,” marching on the state capitol to lobby for a tax extension to preserve school funding.
Although the rally drew some 1,000 teachers and their supporters, only sixty-five people were arrested when they refused to leave the Capitol rotunda after the building closed for the day.
College students and parents, also concerned about the proposed cuts to education, joined the teachers. Many expressed frustration that “corporate greed and politics” have made educators the “scapegoats” in the current wave of criticism of public employee salaries and benefits.
According to California Teachers Association president David A. Sanchez, “It’s not right that the rich and big businesses don’t pay their fair share of taxes.”
Protesting with signs like “Tax the rich” is not as effective as face-to-face meetings with legislators from both parties. It is easier to ignore a noisy crowd outside your building than it is to ignore a constituent in your office. Especially when just last week the country celebrated “National Teachers Appreciation Week.”
Monday, May. 9, 2011
Seeking to restore public confidence in local government, The Detroit City Council has released an 82-page draft document proposing comprehensive changes to provide more transparency and greater representation for the citizens.
The chairwoman of the Detroit Charter Revision Commission said that these changes were prompted by citizens who were fed up with the culture of corruption in the city.
Among the significant proposals is a move to elections by geographic districts. If this is passed on November 8 ballot, there will be a major shift in the politics of the city, putting it on par with many cities of similar size.
A series of embarrassing scandals over the past few years have harmed public confidence in city government, according to the commission. “I think the people feel that if they had their eye closer on the issue, or had their hand in (government), this would have never happened.”
The commission is also proposing several significant changes in the ethics rules of the city charter. Among the new provisions are stricter reporting requirements for lobbyists, increased citizen participation, and greater powers given to the Council.
To enact the changes, the voters will decide on the following recommendations:
• To create an office of the inspector general to investigate waste, abuse, corruption and fraud.
• To require all lobbyists and contractors to disclose political contributions.
• To create community advisory councils for each new district.
• To require individuals to live in the city for one year before they can run for political office.
• To give the council authority to approve the appointment of the police chief and selected other employees.
Thursday, May. 5, 2011
In an effort to dodge open records laws applying to employee bonuses, the city of Burbank, California has come up with an unbelievable argument: “the information would reveal private performance evaluations and erode workplace morale.”
What about taxpayer morale?
The senior assistant city attorney argues the public record request “falls outside established bounds for access to salary and other compensation information for government employees.” Rather than sharing information about individual bonuses, the city provided an aggregate amount--$1 million for the last fiscal year.
Putting aside the discussion of whether or not city employees should receive bonuses at all, the idea that giving the public important financial data would “create embarrassment, morale disruptions and personal dissension in the workplace” is certainly no basis for hiding these numbers. In fact, the city's position raises red flags about possible favoritism or nepotism.
Burbank is facing an estimated $8.7 million budget gap for the next fiscal year. The public has a right to know where every penny is being spent.
Wednesday, May. 4, 2011
My kids learned about civics because I was an elected official, but the lessons they remember are from the songs featured in “Schoolhouse Rock.” A particularly catchy tune is called “How a bill becomes a law,” and a recent internet search shows the step-by-step legislative process put to music has been also been recorded as a rap song, included in a number of parodies, and appears in a number of YouTube videos.
Apparently that’s not making much of a difference to today’s students, since a recent poll shows that “fewer than half of America’s eighth graders knew the purpose of the Bill of Rights.” In fact, according to the New York Times, “only one in 10 demonstrated acceptable knowledge of the checks and balances among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches.’
The test results were so shocking that former Supreme Court Justice said “we have a crisis on our hands when it comes to civics education.” O’Connor has established the non-profit icivics.org, designed to use Web-based games and other tool to engage students.
In California, where Charles Quigley leads the Center for Civic Education, “the results confirm an alarming and continuing trend that civics in America is in decline.” The problem, he says, seems to be “educational policy and practice appear to have focused more on developing the worker at the expense of developing the citizen.”
How can the trend be reversed? Do you think there is another subject that should be dropped in favor of civics lessons? Are there ways outside the classroom that could teach how government works?
Tuesday, May. 3, 2011
Small towns across America are used to being ignored. With a population of fewer than 1,500 Hackleburg, Alabama has no radio or television stations, and there is just one road into the town. It was among the hardest hit by the recent tornados that ripped across the southeast, but it took days for anyone to even locate the town.
Once the Red Cross was able to access Hackleburg, some three dozen people had died, and the town was declared 75% destroyed. The downtown is nothing but rubble and the school was damaged beyond repair.
While residents in smaller and rural communities are generally close-knit and ready to take care of themselves in a disaster, it is important to remember that they also deserve rescue assistance. The friends and family killed in Hackelburg are as precious as those who lost their lives in Tuscaloosa.
Monday, May. 2, 2011
When Nevada Senator John Ensign made his farewell speech in the Senate chambers he was virtually alone. None of the other senators were in attendance.
The joy and promise he felt when taking his oath of office provided a sharp contrast to his final words to his constituents, colleagues, and the public.
“When one takes a position of leadership, this is a very real danger of getting caught up in the hype surrounding that status. Oftentimes, the more power and prestige a person achieves, the more arrogant a person can become,” Ensign said.
In his comments he mentioned other colleagues who had resigned in shame, admitting that it was easy to see their faults but impossible to see his own. He referred to himself as” arrogant and self-centered” and had words of caution for others who serve in public office.
“My caution to all of my colleagues,” he said, “is to surround yourself with people who will be honest with you about how you really are and what you are becoming, and then make them promise to not hold back, no matter how much you may try to prevent them, from telling you the truth.”
My observation over the years has shown me how easy it is to listen to your friends, and how difficult it is to resist suggestions from well-meaning supporters.
But the true test of a friend is someone who has the courage to tell you the unvarnished truth – without weighing in about your re-election. And in return for such wise counsel, consider it carefully when you say “thank you.”
Friday, Apr. 29, 2011
We’ve heard a lot lately about air traffic controllers falling asleep at work. They join a long list of other professionals who have this job-related challenge. Who are these sleep-deprived individuals? Long-haul truck drivers, medical residents and interns, and – don’t laugh – elected officials.
Speaking from experience, it is nearly impossible to focus on the details of a complex municipal bond offering at 2 a.m. It is even more difficult to have an intelligent discussion and make a decision, no matter how hard you tried to stay awake.
Late-night meetings are a standard in some communities, and a rarity in others. Lots of factors come into play. Is there a public hearing with a packed council chambers of speakers? Did the elected officials make long speeches instead of asking pertinent questions? Were there too many coffee breaks? Or did the agenda have too many items to cover in a reasonable amount of time?
The phenomenon occurs at all levels of government. Redistricting decisions in state capitols have been made in the wee hours of the morning. And more than one key vote has taken place in Congress before the sun had a chance to rise.
What is the solution? It would be simple to say “better time management,” but I know that is not the answer. We need to urge our legislators to accept that science shows we all function better when we have a good night’s sleep. We think more clearly, are more articulate, and have overall better health.
Who knows? Maybe with a few more hours of sleep there will be fewer cranky legislators and better legislation.
Thursday, Apr. 28, 2011
With the exception of Bell, California, the city of Vernon has garnered more headlines than most cities of its size. The latest news is the worst yet: the California Assembly voted today to dissolve the city of 112 persons.
If passed by the Senate, the town of 5.2 square miles would be the first “disincorporation” in 40 years.
The city has been mired in political controversy for years. Elections were uncontested for 25 years, and the former city manager was indicted last year for conflict of interest violations. Runaway salaries allowed Eric T. Fresch, the former city attorney and city administrator, to earn more than $1 million for four consecutive years.
Assembly Speaker John Perez, who sponsored Assembly Bill 46, called Vernon “a city in no 'normal sense of the word' with no parks, no libraries and residents nearly all connected to the local government. AB 46 ends the cycle of corruption and abuse in Vernon - while protecting the jobs of the thousands of people who work there." The vote was 62 to 7.
Control over the city would be transferred to Los Angeles County, but not without a fight from lobbyists who represent businesses and labor groups.