Judy Nadler, senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, looks at ethical dilemmas, scandals, and best practices in government.
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Wednesday, Feb. 1, 2012
Tweet, post to Facebook, or call your favorite political reporter.
This is the way consultants who specialize in "opposition research" are shaping the tenor and tone of the current campaigns.
There is hardly a reason to call a source for a story about a candidate. The Twitter postings are a non-stop supply of truth and lies, each writer hoping to find the snippet incorporated in a news story or broadcast -- or retweeted.
I recently heard a disturbing observation from a journalist who has covered politics for many years. "Opposition researchers have replaced investigative reporters."
For all our sakes, I hope that is not true.
Tuesday, Dec. 13, 2011
The following is a fictional case based on real ethical dilemmas facing public officials.
Ramona Lopez never saw herself as a “titan of industry.” She was a sociology major in college, and designed and made jewelry to earn extra money. Her original designs and modest prices made her quite a name on campus, and the university bookstore began to carry her jewelry.
Upon graduation, with no job prospects in her field, she decided to get serious about her hobby and worked with a friend to produce enough jewelry to sell at boutiques. A buyer from a regional department store saw her work and offered to take the designs nationwide, and Ramona found herself in the jewelry business. She learned quickly that the location of the retail stores was critical to her sales, so after much research she took out a loan and bought a small strip mall in a new suburb. It was immediately occupied, and the income from both her jewelry business and the real estate investment put her in a position to acquire several other parcels of land. She continued her successful formula of moving into new neighborhoods, and in just five years she had become one of the wealthiest residents of Camino County.
As more of her operations were turned over to professional managers, Ramona decided to dedicate her time and money to several causes close to her heart – the shelter for battered women and the community fund. Her good works and generous donations earned her the “Citizen of the Year” award, and the shelter named its daycare center The Lopez Center to recognize the donation that funded the building.
Local and state legislators were on a first-name basis with her, and she enjoyed the opportunity to call on them when she had a question or needed help with a project. When the neighbors complained about a proposed expansion of one of her shopping centers, Ramona went to see the mayor of the city to find out how to expedite the planning commission hearing and get council approval.
Mayor Janice Noonan was a bit “star struck” by this savvy businesswoman, and was eager to please her. Ramona mentioned her admiration for the mayor and offered to donate to her upcoming re-election campaign and publicly endorse her. In addition to her personal check of $10,000, she gathered $1,000 checks from 25 of her top employees, who were later reimbursed, in violation of state law.
When the “pay to play” was discovered, Ramona was fined and given two years of probation. During this time she continued her philanthropic activities, doubling her donation to the shelter project and giving significant money to five other non-profits.
Laura Raices, a board member of the shelter expressed concern about accepting the additional money. “I applaud Ramona Lopez and her past generosity. But I feel uncomfortable accepting any future donations. It looks like she is trying to buy forgiveness and use her money to restore her damaged reputation.” But her fellow boardmember Jason Warren argued that there was nothing wrong with accepting Lopez's money.
Questions for discussion:
- Should the shelter accept further donations from Lopez?
- Why or why not?
Post your comments and any examples you know of that are similar to this scenario.
Tuesday, Sep. 27, 2011
This fictional case illustrates some of the challenges facing newly appointed city managers. We welcome your comments and observations.
After serving 25 years as a quiet and low-key city manager of Longworth, Anthony McNerney decided it was time to retire. Under his stewardship the city had grown to 17,000, and he was especially proud that despite the inevitable changes that came over time, the city still retained a small-town feeling, an old-fashioned Main Street, and “the friendliest people in the state.”
During his tenure, the five-member city council had almost always been in agreement, and they endorsed virtually all of his recommendations. Few people attended the council meetings because they were, as one councilmember said, “short and sweet, and no political heat.”
In deciding how to replace McNerney the council called upon the state municipal league for recommendations. The council interviewed six candidates to serve as interim city manager, and chose Greg Holman. A recent graduate in public policy from a prestigious university, he had served as a deputy city manager for two years before moving to a larger city to become assistant city manager. He was now hoping to be selected to the top job in Longworth.
Holman not only had impressive credentials, but he was also well-connected with managers in other cities and had a reputation for involving the community in the decision-making process. He went out of his way to visit local businesses, held two “open office” receptions to meet the public, and scheduled one-on-one sessions for the top administrators. It was clear he had made a positive connection with the city council, so after just four months, he was unanimously appointed city manager.
His energy and enthusiasm was a boost to the community. The president of the Chamber of Commerce called him “a breath of fresh air,” and an editorial in the local newspaper predicted Holman would take the city “to the next level.” The editor highlighted the need to move “into this century” and to praised the council for choosing a city manager who would organize, streamline, and energize the city.
As he went about studying various city policies, Holman found a document marked “city manager’s suggestions, ” but he could not find a formal code of ethics. After checking with the city attorney he learned the council was under the general oversight of the state ethics commission, as were all the cities in the state. But it concerned him that there were no formal rules for the employees; they were to use “common sense” when making decisions.
His worry grew after reading files pertaining to gifts and free tickets received by the employees, unauthorized use of city equipment, and a host of other actions that would be considered ethics violations, putting the council and employees at risk. It became obvious that the pattern was to “look the other way,” a policy Holman was determined to change.
After outlining his concern about the lack of an ethics code and suggesting this be a priority project, several department leaders decided to retire rather than take on this initiative. “I’ve worked here 17 years,” said planning director Gail Shepherd, “and I just don’t have the energy to take on anything new.” Several others senior employees, including the city attorney also opted for retirement. “Call me old-fashioned,” the city auditor joked, “but I like things just the way they are.”
There was some apprehension when Holman brought in replacement staff, all equally enthusiastic about the goal of creating a values-based code of ethics for Longworth . The majority of city employees decided to wait before making a judgment, yet the council remained solidly behind Holman and excited about the ethics project.
A year into his “honeymoon” period Holman got the shock of his life – former city manager McNerney decided to run for an open seat on the council, with the intention of returning things in Longworth “back to normal.” McNerney bragged that everything done under his leadership was positive, and all the changes Holman had implemented he criticized as “ruining a perfectly good city.” His campaign slogan was “Don’t fix it if it isn’t broken.”
The city council and staff found themselves torn – they felt loyalty to and affection for McNerney, but optimism and confidence in the direction of Holman and his new team.
McNerney won in an uncontested election, and was determined to undo some administrative changes and take control of the council majority. Holman had to come up with a strategy that could bridge the old and the new, while keeping a positive work environment and satisfied citizens. He was determined to create an ethics code, but he also needed to find a way to keep his job.
How should Holman approach McNerney now that he is a member of the city council?
What should Holman do in light of the harsh criticism leveled against him during the campaign?Should he ignore it or try to address some of the disparaging accusations?
Would it be appropriate for Holman to ask the former city manager for clarification of the troubling policies or would this create more problems?
How can Holman smooth things over after the election, preventing McNerney from being an obstacle and bridging the gap between the two camps?
Would it be worthwhile to hire an outside consultant specializing in team building and goal setting?
Monday, Aug. 8, 2011
Phil Lakin gives back to the city of Tulsa every day, serving as the head of the Tulsa Community Foundation. Now he wants to serve the community in an additional capacity: as an elected member of the city council, and some say this will create a conflict requiring frequent recusals.
The philanthropic foundation, according to Tulsa World, is worth $4 billion and is the largest of its kind in the nation. The city has been a beneficiary, receiving money for projects ranging from the travel budget for employees in the mayor’s office to buying a $25 million revenue bond to front the cost of a civic project. (The money will be repaid over a 30-year-period.)
The chair of the Ethics Advisory Committee believes Lakin will have to recuse himself from many votes. “Any official,” said Michael Slankard, “whether elected or appointed, has to be very careful about how their day job interacts with their public duties and the perception that will have on the public.”
Although Lakin could not speculate what might constitute a conflict of interest with his job, he has stated “I can guarantee you that if there are any conflicts of interest, I am going to recuse myself, but to sit here today and try to figure out what those are would be really difficult.”
However, the candidate has hinted that his professional affiliation could benefit Tulsa. “If I am elected and see holes in funding that could really advance our city, then yes, I would come back to the community foundation and let our donors know about them. I can't guarantee a dollar will come, but if we can make investments because of the knowledge I receive, then I think that's a benefit."
Please share your comments on the following questions:
• How will the officeholder know what constitutes “crossing the line” prompting a recusal?
• Should Lakin take a “wish list” back to the Foundation?
• Do you think there should be a process whereby citizens can petition the councilmember for recusal?
Wednesday, Jul. 13, 2011
As campaign season heats up, the number of ethical dilemmas for candidates, staff, and volunteers also increases. Here is one based on an interview I had recently with a reporter. It points out the challenges of being both a candidate and an officeholder.
Texas Representative Michael McCaul’s chief of staff Greg Hill has also been working for his boss on the campaign. He has not taken a leave of absence during the campaign, leading to the question: How can you be working for the officeholder and paid by the public while you are simultaneously being paid by the candidate as a campaign staff member?
There are several scenarios that raise a red flag here:
• How can an employee campaign while on government property and presumably using public resources?
• When advising the representative on legislative matters, is the chief of staff (COS) making that recommendation because it is good policy or because it will benefit the campaign?
• Are lobbyists more likely to get access to the officeholder if the COS knows it could lead to a campaign contribution?
• How can you separate the two jobs – and which one might suffer because of this arrangement?
Do you see any other problems that might occur in this scenario, or does it seem okay to you?
Post your comments, and they will help add to our debate over campaign ethics.
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.
Monday, Apr. 25, 2011
I don’t know any of the candidates in the upcoming race for mayor of Chillicothe, Ohio, but I’ve learned of their experiences and campaign platforms thanks to their local newspaper.
One essay that stood out for me was from a lifelong resident who has spent his entire adult life operating a couple of local businesses, serving on the city council, and involving himself in things like going on a ride-along with the police and fire departments. Candidate Joe Sharp also writes about enrolling in ethics, leadership, and grant-writing workshops, and even highlights his tour of the storm drain runoff system. Along the way he has also volunteered as a school crossing guard, and it sounds as though he has attended just about every meeting held at city hall.
I was pretty impressed with his candidate’s statement until I came to the last part.I liked the part about ensuring fiscal oversight, and his generous offer to take a 20 percent pay cut. But as the list of reforms grew longer I became more concerned.
Speaking in the first person, Sharp pledges, “I would personally evaluate the operation of every department to ensure efficiency and accountability. I would take inventory of all buildings and land to ensure they are being used to their fullest potential by combining, relocating, selling or leasing.” This “I” mentality could slip into dangerous territory, leading to council interference in the daily operations of the city. Can he even fulfill these promises?
Despite his good intentions I had to draw the line on his pledge to the voters to “remove the mayor’s office door and make sure you have my cell phone number. I want open, honest, and accurate communication. I will be your mayor 24 hours per day, seven days per week.”
In a town of 22,000 it may be tempting to be the “go-to” mayor on every issue, but there are structures set up in government to allow city departments to operate without the direct involvement of the mayor. And the mayor can only be as effective as the cooperation he or she shares with council colleagues.
While every campaign is filled with energy, ambitious ideas, and promises to the voters, it is wise to remember the local government is still a collaborative, interactive process, and we should try to preserve that.
Wednesday, Apr. 13, 2011
Most cities have strict rules regarding candidates using city equipment, or soliciting employees for support. But what are the rules if you send an email from your personal account, don’t use the city computer server, and don’t explicitly ask for votes or money?
The city council in League City, Texas is taking that up for discussion after a councilmember sent an email to more than 100 city employees. Tim Paulissen, who is also a candidate for mayor, sent an email entitled “The truth about my position on employee retirement funds.” The message was intended to dispel rumors about his position, says Paulissen, and to show support for city staff, including the city manager.
“I don’t see it as campaigning at all,” Paulissen said. “It wasn’t intended to get anyone to vote for me.” The city’s ethics code, adopted in 2009, does not cover this situation, prompting two councilmembers to agendize it for discussion. Councilmember Mick Phalen, who placed the item said, “I see a pattern being set here that I don’t like, and I need to find out how we can stop it from happening in the future. When employees are away from work, that’s one thing, but going to them in the workplace to my way of thinking can be morally wrong.”
Mayor Mike Barber agreed, saying, “emails sent from any candidate can distract city employees from their jobs. Election messages directed to employees’ city email address are not acceptable,” Barber said. “The time people are receiving the emails are during work hours, which is absolutely unacceptable. It’s like allowing employees to go to a political rally during business hours.”
What do you think? If the email did not violate any city policy is it still wrong? What should the council do to clarify the rules? Can they be successful when the parties involved are political rivals?
Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2010
It is not uncommon for public employees to take vacation days to work on political campaigns. Some key staff may take a leave of absence to devote undivided attention to a candidate.
But when two assistant city clerks worked on election day to support the judicial campaign of the council president's daughter-in-law, others on the Jackson City, Mississippi council called the action unethical.
The context of this charge is important to note: councilmembers are frustrated with Council President Frank Bluntson. Speaking of the charges, one critic said "The only thing I'm interested in is that we fulfill our job with integrity."
Blunston countered by saying the clerks volunteered without being asked. "I didn't ask them. Those people in the clerk's office, when you are nice to them they are nice to you. I don't know what his problem is."
The Mississippi Ethics Commission, while not ruling on this specific case, has stated "there is no prohibition against government employees taking time off from work to participate in a political campaign, as long as they are not pressured to do so."
The investigation into whether or not the employees were asked or encouraged to volunteer is one issue. Separate from that is the leadership struggle in a politically charged council environment.
Do you see a problem here? How would you handle this situation?
Tuesday, Nov. 9, 2010
It's illegal to use public funds for political purposes, but in Atlanta, that line was "blurry" for one member of the city council.
Councilwoman Cleta Winslow was fined recently for spending more than $5,000 of taxpayer's money to support her re-election.
The Ethics Code is clear about some issues, but apparently isn't clear enough about the distinction between community events and campaign events. In this circumstance, Winslow had the city pick up the tab for a number of events leading up to the election. Included in the expenses: food, beverages, and "Re-Elect Cleta Winslow" t-shirts.
In another instance, Winslow's campaign paid for a newsletter updating issues in the district, but the city of Atlanta reimbursed her $3,720 for workers (wearing the the campaign t-shirts) who walked door-to-door to distribute the flyer.
Many cities have officeholder accounts, allowing councilmembers to sponsor special events in their district. This "discretionary" money usually has no strings attached, but this story makes a strong case for guidelines for spending. It's a simple way to make those blurry lines absolutely clear.