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, Oct. 16, 2012 4:07 PM
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.
Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2011 4:18 PM
The following is a fictionalized case reflecting some of the ethical dilemmas facing public officials.
Mike Monroe and Derek Wheeler were roommates and fraternity brothers at a small mid-western college. Both were political science majors, so they saw a lot of each other, both in academic and social situations. Derek’s wild and outrageous pranks, excessive drinking, and one-night-stands earned him the reputation of playing “fast and loose” in his personal life. He had been caught plagiarizing twice, but was only given a warning. Still, he was personable and a good friend, so upon graduation the two vowed to stay in touch.
After their fifth college reunion, where Derek became so drunk he needed to be hospitalized, Mike decided to break off communication. His only updates on his former roommate came through the fraternity alumni magazine, where Derek submitted updates on his career. He had a master’s degree in public administration, and had been working for cities in several states. His job in each jurisdiction lasted only two or three years, but each new job sounded like a promotion. Mike figured Derek had finally “grown up” and was happy to learn of his success.
Mike had also been successful. He moved to Utah, and worked as a field representative for a state legislator. He fell in love with public service and was elected to the city council. He was now in his second term as mayor, and was overseeing a new “culture of ethics” program in River Falls, stressing values in addition to the rules outlined in the code of ethics.
It had been 10 years since they last connected, so Mike was surprised to get an invitation from Derek to be a friend on two separate Facebook accounts. Mike agreed, and first went to a personal account featuring facts about Derek’s education, work history, and family. The second Facebook page, with privacy controls restricting access, was for a group called “Derek’s Doghouse.” The other “friends” on the site included some fraternity brothers, but also a collection of men Derek had met or worked with over the years.
He founded the group, according to the site, “ to celebrate the good life: wine, women, and wild times.” The wall postings chronicled wild weekends in Las Vegas, gambling on sporting events, and exploits with women while on business trips. The 20 or so members were candid, unedited, and occasionally profane in their comments, bragging about their bad behavior. The stories were often accompanied by compromising photos.
Within days of the Facebook contact, Derek called Mike to ask for a job recommendation. He was submitting his application for the assistant city manager position in River Falls and wanted Mike to put in a good word. “I’ve never asked for a favor,” Derek said, “but this job is perfect for me and my family. I really hope you will be able to influence the HR director and city manager to hire me.”
- How should Mike proceed? Should he tell Derek he doesn’t feel comfortable making the recommendation?
- Should he tell Derek that River Falls is not a "good fit" for him?
- Does he have an obligation to alert the HR manager and/or city manager of the way Derek conducts his personal life?
- Is Derek’s secret personal life an indication of his values? Does it matter?
Please let us know what you think by posting your comments on this site.
Wednesday, Apr. 20, 2011 2:35 PM
In an unprecedented move, the United States Conference of Mayors has issued a video documenting the increase in what it calls “recall fever.”
The 15-minute film highlights recent recall campaigns against the mayors of Akron, Chattaooga, and Omaha. Although these efforts were unsuccessful, Miami-Dade County Mayor Carlos Alvarez was removed from office by an overwhelming margin.
While the video looks at what prompts a recall campaign (raising taxes is often a key issue), it also underscores the use of social networks to reach voters. These “viral” campaigns are often conducted with few staff members and at a low cost, while the incumbent mayor must spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend his or her place in office.
Wednesday, Apr. 13, 2011 4:15 PM
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?
Monday, Feb. 7, 2011 4:44 PM
Having a Facebook
page is one way public officials stay in touch with constituents. But a state representative from Connecticut found her social network included a new form of “identity theft. ”
Because State Representative Kim Hunter Rose doesn’t use the chat feature of the social network site, her friends were suspicious when messages arrived from her asking for money to pay taxes on money she had won. An unknown person had created a second, fake account using her name and photo.
This type of hijacking of identity has also been used in political campaigns, where the veil of anonymity makes it virtually impossible to track down the culprits.
Any recommendations for how to best deal with reaching the public through social media while protecting your good name? Share them in the comment section of this blog.
Friday, Dec. 17, 2010 5:03 PM
When something goes wrong or a student makes a mistake, educators are likely to ask, “what can we learn from this experience?”
In looking ahead to the government ethics stories I predict will be in the headlines in 2011, I’m reflecting on what went wrong this year and trying to imagine what we have learned, and how or if things will change.
Reviewing the past is easy; predicting the future is difficult. Nevertheless, here are the five topics I believe we will be talking about in the months ahead:
· Conflicts of interest. We used to think that a conflict was clearly defined and applied to an individual and a vote. Things have changed. We are now seeing all kinds of conflicts of interest surfacing – institutional, personal, financial, political. The “sleeper” is the conflict that exists when public officials are involved in foundations, non-profits, and similar organizations that benefit the community but also benefit the office holder.
· Campaign finance and the influence of money. Record amounts of money were spent across the nation on the November election, and a significant portion came through 501c 4 organizations that are not subject to the strict reporting requirements we need in campaigns. And while the defeat of Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina in their self-funded campaigns may lead us to conclude that personal wealth cannot buy an election, there are results in other races that prove otherwise.
· Increased use of social media. At the Conference on Governmental Ethics Laws (COGEL) conference I attended recently, there was much talk about the use of social media in government and politics. I predict more government agencies, officeholders, candidates, and voters will be using Twitter, Facebook, and other platforms. This presents many opportunities, but also many challenges. As long as comments can be made anonymously and statements posted without any verification as to factual content, we are bound to have problems. And public officials will need to remember that a majority of councilmembers chatting on Facebook about city business is no different than conducting business behind closed doors – it’s illegal.
· The private lives of public officials. While sexual misconduct has captured most of the headlines in the past, I expect there will be some new subjects that surface in this area of personal conduct. Increasingly, the background and history of an individual can come back to haunt, even 20 or more years later. (And there are many stories captured on cell phones that make it to YouTube.) There are also high-stakes financial dealings that may receive more attention in the coming year.
· Partisan polarization. The emergence of the Tea Party has created an unprecedented degree of chaos and partisan bickering on the local, state, and national level. Budgets have been stalled, bills have languished, and rhetoric has overtaken honest debate. I’ve heard people talk about the “super minority” and “super majority” in terms that signal a long, difficult legislative year ahead.
Let me know what you think will be making headlines next year. Post your comments here or on my Twitter account : her_honor.