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Her Honor

Judy Nadler, senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, looks at ethical dilemmas, scandals, and best practices in government.

The following postings have been filtered by tag Texas. clear filter
  •  City-owned iPad Should Be For City Business

    Tuesday, Oct. 16, 2012

    An experienced officeholder knows it is illegal to use a city-owned phone for personal or political calls, so I found it difficult to believe that Lubbock, Texas Councilman Victor Hernandez didn’t think using a city-owned iPad for political messages was wrong.

    The councilman, an attorney who has spent 20 years in public service, regularly uses the device to post on Facebook, delivering messages and photos to his 1,200 “friends.” A complaint was filed with the council and city manager after Hernandez used the iPad to post political and partisan messages. The city pays $37 per month for his data service, and an additional $90 or so in monthly stipends for the cell phone.

    According to the Lubbock Avalanche-Journal, Hernandez sees nothing unethical with his Facebook posts. In an email to the city attorney, Hernandez asked, “I use the iPad for my law practice, personal use, political use and city business. Is there a problem here from the city’s perspective?”

    I don’t know what the city attorney will say, and the councilman says he’ll stop posting partisan messages “pending legal advice.” The city’s code of ethics does not specifically mention use of city property for political purposes – but it should. The Texas Ethics Commission, in an earlier advisory opinion, says use of this type by state employees  would be a  “misuse of government property.”

    In a business environment this kind of "spillover" between work and personal use of technology may not be an issue. But in the public sector, there are important reasons to separate the two. One is fairness: using technology paid for by the voters gives an advantage to an incumbent who is not paying  for getting out a message.

    The practice is also a problem because it could lead to elected officials using other types of  public property-- such as automobiles --for personal use.

     

  •  Mixing Politics and Policy In Campaigns

    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.

  •  Use Of Email In Campaign Raises Ethical Questions

    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?

  •  When Networking Looks Like Quid Pro Quo

    Thursday, Feb. 24, 2011

     

    Setting up a senior center in your council district is good for the community and the councilmember. In San Antonio, Councilman Ray Lopez thought it might also be of personal benefit.
     
    The legislator met with representatives of WellMed, a company that operates 23 clinics in the Texas city. In a follow-up email with the company vice president, Lopez mentioned he had a consulting group with experience in IT support, and requested a meeting to discuss how he could provide services to WellMed.
     
    This kind of “networking” may be common practice in the private sector, but the city’s ethics code prohibits officials from “soliciting outside employment that could be expected to impair independence of judgment.”  The code makes no reference to the difference between seeking employment and being hired.
     
    After a discussion of his qualifications, Lopez was asked to intervene on behalf of WellMed to secure a special program from the AT&T Foundation. He contacted the former mayor, a current executive with AT&T. “I thought it was a great service. It’s almost an expected engagement from somebody in public office to try to do outreach and facilitate partnerships where they can happen,” says Lopez.
     
    Ultimately the contract went to WellMed, although they were already under a cloud in the wake of the resignation of another member of the council, Jennifer Ramos, who resigned from a job with WellMed’s charitable arm. Lopez did not end up working for the company.
     
    These types of relationships raise serious concerns about fairness and integrity. Lopez, admitting the lucrative contract is a good deal for WellMed, said “They’ve pretty well cracked the nut.”

     

  •  The Hammer Comes Down On DeLay

    Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2011

    There was a time when "money laundering" was linked only to organized crime. Today, former House majority leader Tom DeLay was sentenced to prison for engaging in a money laundering scheme to funnel illegal corporate contributions to influence the 2002 election in Texas.

    In addition to his three years for money laundering, the once powerful congressman (known as The Hammer) was also convicted of conspiracy. The charges could have led to a sentence of life in prison.

    When he was convicted in November, DeLay called the action "the criminalization of politics."Even upon his sentencing, he maintains his innocence, saying, "I fought the fight. I ran the race. I kept the faith."

  •  Open Meetings Versus Free Speech

    Thursday, Dec. 2, 2010

    When individuals appear in court complaining about "open meeting laws" they are usually constituents or members of the  press protesting the loopholes that allow back-room deals. In a bizarre twist, more than a dozen councilmembers in Texas are alleging the laws are too restrictive -- and don't allow them to have private conversations.

    I have to admit I read this story twice, thinking I somehow misunderstood the complaint. But, in fact, these public officials feel their constitutional rights to free speech are being violated by the Texas Open Meetings Act. They fear their exchanges might lead to fines or jail time if they violate the Act.

    Unbelievable! The public has a right to know what goes into the deliberations leading to a council vote, and the elected officials have an obligation to be transparent.

    Fortunately the judge didn't agree, but he didn't disagree either. He's asking for more information and will announce his decision next month.

    In taking this to district court these councilmembers have shown either a complete lack of understanding of democracy or incredible hubris. It makes me wonder what else they are up to.

     

 
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