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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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.
Tuesday, May. 29, 2012
Do you have a correctional facility in your community? Ever wonder what goes on behind the barbed wire and concrete walls?
You might be surprised to learn that many of the challenges mayors and public administrators face are exactly the same as the ones faced by those who are in charge of our jails, prisons, detention, and rehabilitation centers.
In addressing a class of executives, wardens, and other high-level employees of local, state, and federal facilities, I realized the general public has little knowledge of the workings of these institutions and of the everyday challenges employees face.
My workshop for the Executive Excellence track of the National Institute of Corrections included a background on the Markkula Center’s Framework for Ethical Decision Making, as well as background on how to create a culture of ethics in an organization.
We know that corruption in government captures headlines. For example, the grand jury in Mason County, West Virginia, recently indicted former sheriff David Anthony on 42 counts, including fraud, embezzlement, and unauthorized use of a government purchasing card. He was sentenced to 18 months in jail, and until his “no contest” plea had planned to run for re-election. His sentence was slightly delayed because the judge also required him to write a letter of apology to the public and his employees.
What impact does this story and others like it have on correctional facilities? Plenty. In discussing the importance of ethics and creating and maintaining a culture of ethics, the participants' concerns mirrored those of other public servants.
Ethical lapses create the following problems:
• Loss of public trust. One incident can lead to a series of stories that create the impression of widespread corruption.
• Low morale. The actions of only a few can cause all employees to face embarrassment or loss of productivity.
• Closure of facilities or cuts in funding. The legislature may take punitive action against a facility in response to problems in a facility, even if those problems are being addressed
. • Difficulty in hiring personnel. Public service is important and rewarding work, but if a correctional facility is facing an investigation or employees are under indictment, recruiting good employees can be nearly impossible.
Balancing the need to take care of the facility as well as develop positive relationships with government leaders and the community was a common theme in our discussions.
While correctional facilities are good for the local economy, they are not always appreciated for the difficult, but necessary role they play in our society.
Tuesday, Nov. 29, 2011
The following case has been created for discussion purposes. We welcome your comments.
The city of Berkshire was proud of its tradition and history. For the residents of this suburb, one of the greatest sources of pride was the city government. The state league of cities had cited Berkshire as one of the top 10 in the category of best-run municipalities, and most of that credit went to Mayor William Simmons.
Owner of the largest insurance company in town, Mayor Simmons set the record for longest-serving mayor – 42 years in office. The council decided to honor him by naming the new boulevard leading to city hall “William Simmons Way” and to erect a large monument sign in the plaza citing his service and leadership.
Several local companies, including a restaurant, law office, title company, fitness center, and medical offices relocated to the new street.
Two years later, Simmons was sentenced to three years in federal prison for taking more than $500,000 in kickbacks in return for steering business to several contractors while he was mayor. He resigned in shame, asking forgiveness from the community and admitting his actions gave “a black eye” to Berkshire.
Rosemary Preston, the new mayor, suggested the sign be removed and the street renamed. There was an outcry from Mrs. Simmons, who said she had conducted a survey of residents and there was “overwhelming” support for keeping the sign and street name. “It’s just plain wrong to let this one blemish ruin an otherwise spotless career.”
The council also heard from individuals who said to honor the former mayor was in direct contradiction to the town’s ethics and values. One city hall employee spoke up saying, “I don’t want to see his name ‘glorified’ each day when I come to work.”
A more practical concern was expressed by the businesses on the street. The attorneys who had offices on William Simmons Way explained what it meant to change the name of the street. “We have to change our letterhead and business cards, notify all our clients, change our insurance policies, utilities – the list is endless. We don’t care if you take the sign down, but don’t make us go through the trouble and expense of changing the name of the street.”
Questions for discussion:
- It is appropriate to name public streets or buildings for individuals who are still alive?
- Would this be an issue if the crime were of a personal nature, and not one involving the conduct of the public’s business?
- If the street is renamed, should the city be responsible for the costs incurred to the businesses?
- What should the council do?
- What would you do?
Tuesday, Jul. 19, 2011
Long known for corrupt government, Taiwan is taking significant steps to end such activities by establishing its first anti-corruption government agency.
The Agency Against Corruption (AAC) will be under the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) and led by a previous MOJ counselor. “The agency’s aim is to fight corruption, raise the conviction rate of corruption cases, and protect human rights.”
Ethics officers and investigators will make up the 180-person agency, including employees who handled a major scandal in 2008. In that case, the ex-minister of Interior was given a two-prison term but was instead suspended for five years.
The agency will rely on tips from local government organizations, and will work closely with law enforcement in their investigations. From there, the cases will be turned over to prosecutors.
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.
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, 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.
Monday, Jan. 31, 2011
While political news “inside the Beltway” is standard fare, Prince George’s County
in nearby Maryland has been in the headlines as well.
A new county executive, Rushern L. Baker has replaced Jack Johnson, who left office after his indictment on federal corruption charges. “Pay-to-play” was so ingrained in the county government that ending the cycle has been compared to “untying a Gordian knot.”
“It is very important that we should focus on these concerns,” said former Baltimore mayor Kurt Schmoke, who chairs the Accountability, Compliance, and Integrity Advisory Board. He said it is important for people to know what is going on, and for the political leaders to learn “how citizens feel about what is going on.”
The panel will consider a wide range of tools to increase transparency in government, including publishing public documents online. A priority will be examining the establishment of a hotline, identified by the panel as “a deficiency that inhibits rooting out waste, fraud and abuse .”
Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2011
January ushers in change, and that was felt in a dramatic way in Cuyahoga County, Ohio,
where a new form of government was in place Monday, January 3.
The county, formerly led by just three commissioners, is now governed by 11 elected officials and a new county executive. The change was prompted by a history of corruption that led to a ballot measure creating the new structure.
“Integrity and professionalism in our work is an urgent priority for me and should be a key priority for all of us in Cuyahoga County government,” according to Ed FitzGerald, the new top administrator. “We should not delay in establishing a higher standard in the performance of all our duties.”
In addition to restructuring the board, the year begins with a new ethics code requiring all employees to report “wrongdoing or unethical conduct, whether by a fellow employee or outsiders.” There is also a proposal to establish a code of conduct for vendors doing business with the county.
Friday, Oct. 29, 2010
For anyone who has ever waited in line for hours to register a car, the news story about Memphis City Council member Barbara Swearengen Ware caused a spike in blood pressure.
The council woman was just indicted by a state grand jury for "obtaining expedited service for car tags, in many cases without going to the trouble of having cars inspected."
The evidence shows Ware was soliciting special treatment long before her indictment, and also accepted free tickets from a developer becase he was a 'nice guy."
Despite the revelations, there are no consequences spelled out in the city's ethics code. The voters will have an opportunity to change that next week, when a charter change is on the ballot that would strengthen the code and call upon public officials to "conduct themselves in a manner that promotes confidence in the metropolitan government."
As a Commercial Appeal editorial points out, the public should not return to office individuals "who don't know it's wrong to misuse the power that comes with public office -- whether it violates the law or not."