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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Tuesday, Dec. 18, 2012
The San Antonio Ethics Review Board has ruled that taking free or discounted tickets to a hotel is a violation that should be investigated by law enforcement.
According to board chair Arthur Downey, current and former city employees accepted rooms at the Grand Hyatt Hotel – rooms known as the Alamodome suites, that are valued at $900. While the individuals were disciplined in July, there were no criminal charges filed. The district attorney has confirmed an investigation is under way.
The Ethics Review Board took action in response to a citizen’s complaint—not about the hotel rooms per se, but because the city didn’t take any action when the information was made public.
Michael Cuellar, the complainant, was also concerned that city manager Sheryl Sculley didn’t follow an administrative directive that requires an independent audit or outside investigation in cases such as this.
The city’s Office of Municipal Integrity initially investigated the case, and the publicity surrounding the results prompted the district attorney’s office to begin a preliminary inquiry before the Ethics Review Board met.
Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012
There should be an adage for public figures: “there is no such thing as a free ride.”
Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper recently accepted a Chrysler Ram 1500 plug-in hybrid pickup truck from officials at Tri-State Generation, a utility company. His only obligation is to keep track of mileage and maintenance, and allow Chrysler to interview divers who use the vehicle.
The Colorado Independent Ethics Commission ruled the gift was offered to the governor’s office, not the governor, so it does not violate the state’s gift ban. In the advisory opinion, the commission provided what I think is good reason for him to decline the offer of the vehicle.
“The commission is concerned about the appearance of impropriety that could arise in the context of this arrangement. Tri-State is a high-profile business in the state that is active in public policy, including robust representation in administrative proceedings ad at the legislature.”
Hickenlooper’s office argues the transparency of the contract should avoid any appearance of impropriety, but I doubt the public is focusing on the contract. What they see is the state’s top elected official getting a free ride and appearing to endorse a product – a troubling perception for taxpayers and a slippery slope for the governor.
Monday, Nov. 14, 2011
What is your gift threshold? Would you accepta $12 meal? Would you turn down an offer to take a ride at an amusement park if you knew the value was $150? How about taking advantage of free parking offered by an athletic foundation worth $1,200?
The question of “gifts and freebies” accepted by some elected officials in South Carolina made news recently, and the fraction of legislators and councilmembers who took gifts was clearly outnumbered by the public servants who just said “no” to similar offers. According to The Sun News, of the 68 state legislators and sitting members of county council and city councils, 16 of them have reported taking gifts from businesses, constituents, and agencies. The total amount filed on economic disclosure forms is $46,507.
Reasons for turning down gifts varied:" I pay my own way so I don’t have to worry about conflicts or questions.” One legislator who accepted more than $11,000 in gifts said “the decision to accept a gift comes down to common sense,” and argues that refusing some gifts could send the message "you've been very indignant." And while he uses a “token gift” of a letter opener as an example, he has also accepted a golf and beach club membership worth $2,520.
Speaking at a Markkula Center Public Sector Roundtable recently, Michael Martello, former Mountain View, CA city attorney, predicted an even greater emphasis on the ethics of gifts, especially with the current focus of the influence of lobbyists.
As a previous officeholder and current senior fellow at an applied ethics center, I have repeatedly reminded public servants that accepting a gift gives the public the appearance that the gift is being given for one of two reasons-- in exchange for a favor done or in anticipation of a favor. Accepting freebies, even if they are only of “token” value, can damage credibility and public trust.
For more on ethics and gifts, visit the government ethics page of the Center’s Web site: http://www.scu.edu/ethics/practicing/focusareas/government_ethics/
Wednesday, Jul. 27, 2011
I spoke with a reporter recently who was writing about gifts elected officials were taking but not disclosing. More troubling, many of the officeholders said they “couldn’t remember” whether or not they had gone to the Super Bowl courtesy of a major business interest. How could this be?
It’s difficult to explain the “selective memory” excuse, since tickets to major sporting events, Broadway shows, and golf excursions at exclusive country clubs are not only memorable, but out of the reach of most of the public. However, there is is a theory about how officeholders get themselves into trouble: they step onto the “slippery slope.”
The simplest definition in the dictionary for this phenomenon is “dangerous situation.” In politics, the slippery slope generally refers to an ethical decision that starts with no consequences, but subsequent decisions make it more difficult to discern right from wrong. Without knowing it, the individual has “crossed the line” and done something unethical. The slope is especially slippery when gifts or special privileges are involved.
A common excuse for unethical behavior is “everyone else is doing it.” Another way to explain this behavior is to claim, “it’s not that bad.” This always leaves me wondering what would be bad? My personal favorite is the officeholder who is insulted by an ethics complaint, protesting, “I cannot be bought off by…(a round of golf, playoff tickets--you fill in the blank).
Not all the blame rests with the public officials. After all, they are just accepting a gift or benefit that has been offered by a lobbyist, special interest group, or grateful citizen.
It may not be easy to resist to these temptations, but nobody ever said being in public life would be easy.
Tuesday, Jul. 26, 2011
Politicians who travel to exotic places “on business” are apt to draw negative attention, but in New York, the travel drew a $20,000 fine.
Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz took several overseas trips for official city business, but because he brought his wife the Conflicts of Interest Board found him guilty of an ethical violation. The fact that wife Jamie accompanied him was deemed to be “accepting travel expenses for his wife for each trip, using his position as a public servant for private or personal advantage. Simply put, his wife was able to travel with him abroad –for free.”
The trips in question were to Turkey (twice) and to the Netherlands. Markowitz argues neither he nor his wife received any personal benefit from the trips, saying, “when they bring you over it’s not vacation –they make you work.”
In making its decision, the board noted Mrs. Markowitz is not an official staff member, quoting a New York City Charter provision that states “no public servant shall use or attempt to use his or her position as a public servant to obtain any financial gain, contract, license, privilege or other private or personal advantage, direct or indirect, for the public servant or any person or firm associated with the public servant.”
Although he will pay the fine, Markowitz maintains he did nothing wrong, and called the ruling a “terrible decision.”
Reading the comments posted to the New York Times article show opposing reactions to this story. Several readers felt Markowitz was a hard-working public servant, and expressed support for “the option of bringing a spouse on international travel, particularly if it’s for more than a few days.”
The majority of the reactions were negative: “another politician who thinks that ethics laws apply to everybody but him.” A common thread was expressed by one reader who wrote “Is he serving his constituents in any way by taking these contrived missions of good will, which in essence are nothing more than ‘vacations?’ These kind of junkets are what sour people on politicians.”
What do you think? Is travel a perk or part of the job? Should a spouse or companion be allowed a “free ride” or be made to pay for the trip and accompanying expenses? Let me know by posting a comment here.
Tuesday, Apr. 5, 2011
There is no such thing as a free lunch, and the mayor of Los Angeles has learned that under California ethics laws there can be no free basketball games, concerts, or seats at the Academy Awards.Commission levied nearly $42,000 in fines to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, the largest fine of its kind. Records show the mayor had failed to report free tickets to events ranging from the American Idol Finale, Los Angeles Lakers games, and numerous concerts.
The case illustrates two different interpretations of attending an event in an official capacity. The mayor insisted he was not in violation of the gifts laws because he was performing ceremonial duties. FPPC Executive Director Roman Porter says there may be an occasion when an elected official is performing “some type of official activity. But it didn’t rise to the level of a ceremonial duty.”
The fine could have been as high as $167,000 between the FPPC ruling and the ethics commission recommendation, but Villaraigosa showed he had made a “good faith” effort to comply with the law.“ It is my responsibility to make sure I act in strict compliance with the applicable rules,” said the mayor when agreeing to pay the fine.
According to Porter, transparency in reporting gifts is not only the law but good government. “The public has a right to know which individuals are attempting to influence public official by providing them with meals, entertainment, and other gifts.”
Friday, Feb. 11, 2011
When the mayor of Calgary took a flight to Toronto recently, a firm doing business with the city paid the $721.50 airfare. He says he took the free flight to save the city money. And despite public criticism over the Toronto trip, he’s flying to Vancouver next week, using a $659.14 ticket paid for by a leadership academy.
Expect to see more of these kinds of justifications for accepting gifts of travel. A municipal budgets are reduced to addressing basic services, travel has been all but eliminated in some cities. But this justification doesn’t pass the ethics test, regardless of Calgary’s financial constraints.
Allowing a contractor or vendor to pay for gifts of travel can compromise the independent and objective relationship needed for fair and good government. Gifts such as this can be seen as a quid pro quo or a reward for a contract. Accepting such freebies can also lead to the “slippery slope” where legitimate business trips merge with personal travel.
Fortunately the city is considering hiring ethics experts to provide guidelines for council travel, gifts, and campaign donations. Replacing the informal, unwritten policies is overdue.
Friday, Feb. 4, 2011
manager Kim Day has been charged by the city’s ethics board for violating the code of ethics for accepting a paid trip overseas in 2009.
Day flew to Greece, with all expenses paid by Insight Media Limited, a London company that was negotiating a contract with the airport at the time of the trip. The value of the contract was $370,000 and Day says the financial details had already been worked out when she flew to Athens.
Although she asked for advice from the ethics board in advance, notes show that the matter was discussed but no opinion was issued. The airport has reimbursed the company $5,700 for the trip.
This situation illustrates the importance of obtaining a clear, written opinion rather than relying on simple conversations. The city and the airport could have avoided the scandal and the cost if better procedures were in place to cover such “gifts” to public employees.
Friday, Nov. 19, 2010
There are few things that infuriate the public more than government officials getting "a free ride." This is literally the case in New Jersey, where Port Authority commissioners, employees, retirees, and non-union employees had access to free E-Z Passes.
The practice began after the attack on the World Trade Center, home of the Port Authority offices. According to Deputy Executive Director Bill Baroni the agency is "eliminating benefits that are unavailable to the toll-paying public." The new headquarters are expected to open in 2014, and the toll-free transportation will only be continued for those who were working on or before September 11, 2001 and will cease when the new building is opened.
The Port Authority estimates the move will save $1.5 million a year. Even though that amount is a fraction of the overall budget, dropping this benefit for all agency employees is a significant recognition of the importance of spending tax dollars wisely,