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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 ethics violations. clear filter
  •  Should Taxpayers Shoulder Burden For Legal Fees of Officeholders?

    Thursday, May. 31, 2012

    The city of Plantation, Florida will reimburse the mayor more than $63,000 in legal fees she spent in defending ethics and criminal allegations filed by a political rival.

    The Florida Commission on Ethics dismissed the charges brought forward by Warren Meddoff, who is now required to pay more than $52,000 for his part. Although Meddoff admitted he did no have any direct evidence of ethics violations by the mayor, he said city employees  told him that she was campaigning at city hall, and thus misusing her position. His complaint also accused her of violating the Sunshine Law, requiring elected officials to conduct public business in the open. The State Attorney’s Office dismissed that as well.

    An administrative judge ruled that “Meddoff acted with a malicious intent” to injure the mayor’s reputation. “Cities have an obligation to pay costs of elected officials when allegations are made with reckless regard to the truth,” according to city attorney Donald Lunny.

    The city’s insurance carrier has paid $25,000, and if the mayor collects any money from Meddoff she will reimburse the city.

    Discussion questions:

    • Should the city pay the legal fees?

    • Would it make a difference if the charges against the mayor were not made by a political rival, but by a citizen with no political agenda?

    • How might the council handle a similar situation in the future?

    • Is it possible this action will discourage legitimate whistleblowers from coming forward with complaints about elected officials?

    Post your comments here.

  •  Handling Council Critics: Is The Customer Always Right?

    Friday, Jul. 29, 2011

    As a part of an on-going series of case studies in government ethics, summer intern Jason Wu wrote the following scenario about civility at council meetings. Discussion questions follow; we encourage your comments.

    As a four-term mayor of the city of Brookstone, Paul Mackey had done his best to manage the city’s budget over the years. Despite his efforts, he still found himself in the midst of an economic crisis. Many neighboring cities were undergoing drastic cutbacks to their programs, and Brookstone was no exception.

    Having proposed several unpopular options that would slash funding to city services, Mackey fielded phone calls every day from angry citizens who demanded a plan that would keep their favorite programs intact. The pressure was mounting upon Mackey to deliver something that would satisfy the public and be supported by the council. His patience was wearing thin.

    A few days prior to the next council meeting, Mackey had a long conversation with Joan Anderson, a vocal critic of his budget plans. That afternoon, Ms. Anderson filed a complaint with the police department saying that she had felt personally threatened by the mayor. “I asked Mr. Mackey how he could in good conscience consider cutting funding to our bookmobile, and he just snapped,” Anderson said.

    The complaint appeared in the local newspaper and led to an interview with the mayor. Mackey denied the allegation, and maintained that he had never shouted at a constituent “in all my years of service as a public official.”

    Because there was no evidence to back up either of their statements, the case was closed.

    However, Anderson remained determined to make her voice heard. She sent an email to the mayor that outlined her own budget plan, and she also invited him to meet for coffee and settle their differences. Mackey responded by writing, “Your comments are like those of a gadfly-you are never happy and you never have a solution but you always have lots of complaints.”

    Outraged by his reply and armed with copies of the email, Anderson filed a complaint with the city clerk and city manager claiming that Mackey had violated Brookstone’s Code of Ethics. Since Brookstone did not have an independent ethics commission to investigate potential violations, it was up to the council members to take action. The city clerk and city manager forwarded the copies of the email to the council members, and Anderson’s complaint was agendized for an upcoming city council meeting.

    At the meeting, Anderson pointed out that Brookstone’s Code of Ethics made it clear that officials had to act at all times with “respect, courtesy, and concern.” She added that the code also said that “officials who violate the Code of Ethics will be subject to disciplinary action, up to and including removal from office.”

    Emily Lam, the vice-mayor of Brookstone, proposed that the council submit the issue to the ethics subcommittee, which would review the incident. The other council members and the mayor agreed that this was the best course of action.

    Two weeks later, the ethics subcommittee delivered their report at a city council meeting. They recommended that the council issue a formal reprimand, which would amount to a slap on the wrist for Mackey. The mayor recused himself from the vote, and the other council members voted 4-0 in favor of the motion for a reprimand and tried to move on.

    However, Mackey was furious with the resolution. “We’re facing the biggest financial crisis in Brookstone’s history, and instead of dealing with it we’re just wasting our time on these petty complaints,” he said. Embarrassed by his outburst, the other council members were anxious to resolve the infighting and get back to the business of managing the budget shortfall.

    Discussion Questions:

    • How should the mayor and the council handle citizen complaints such as the one made by Ms. Anderson?
    • Is Mackey’s email really a violation of the Code of Ethics or is it simply part of the “rough and tumble” world of politics?
    • Is there a difference between a Code of Ethics and a Code of Conduct or Council Protocol?
    • What can the mayor and council do to restore civility in the conduct of council meetings and repair their relationships with each other?
    • What role, if any, does the city manager play in “keeping the peace”?
  •  Attempt To Cut Ethics Budget Sends Wrong Message

    Friday, Jul. 22, 2011

    He insists it wasn’t an act of retaliation, but the congressman who proposed a 40% cut in the budget of the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) was a target of an ethics investigation last year.

    Rep. Melvin Watt of North Carolina said he supported the amendment because “the work by the ethics office is at times abusive, causing unnecessary embarrassment of House members.” Rep. Steve King of Iowa went even further with his criticism, accusing the ethics office of violating “Roman law, English common law, and the decency of the House.”

    The vote was 102-302, and members were forced to go on the record rather than voting by voice. Acknowledging there may be some problems with the OCE, one congressman said the cuts were not the answer. Rep. Michael E. Capuano of Massachusetts called the cuts “draconian punishment” that look like an attempt to say “We’re the boss; you’re not.”

    The ethics office can investigate but not punish House members, and has looked into charges levied against both parties. While Mr. Watt’s case was referred to the committee, no charges were ever filed against him.

    Legislation seeking to silence ethical checks and balances only serves to add to the perception that all politicians are crooks. Whether it is the OCE or a local ethics commission doing the work, it’s good to remember the words of Sophocles: “Don’t kill the messenger.”

  •  Nepotism Charge Brings Nasty Response From The Public

    Thursday, Jul. 7, 2011

    Summer jobs are hard to come by, so you can imagine the response from the public when it was revealed that the mayor of Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania hired his daughter and niece to work at city hall this summer.

    Mayor Tom Leighton saw nothing wrong with the hires, which had been recommended by the city’s human relations manager. But the positions had not been posted—so the general public didn’t know about them- and the mayor signed the paperwork.

    When I spoke with the reporter covering the story for  the Citizen’s Voice, the first thing that came to mind was nepotism, a violation of ethics laws. The mayor was asked if he thought the decision was a violation of the state Ethics Act. “Not that I’m aware of, I don’t think.”

    The reader comments in the article “Leighton rubber stamped family jobs,” decried the mayor’s actions and expressed concern that there might be other problems at city hall. “It’s now the time to look into other shady deals that come out of this mayor’s office,” wrote one reader. Another vowed to mail a complaint to the State Ethics Commission.

    This type of negative response is only one of the consequences of nepotism, broadly defined as showing favoritism to members of the family. There are several other serious concerns:

    • Fairness. Was the same opportunity given to all members of the public to apply for these positions? It looks like the mayor’s relatives had an advantage not offered to others.

    • Competency. Favoritism undermines the confidence in the qualifications of the employee. In other words, was this person hired on the basis of ability and experience, or because of a family connection? Favoritism can also create tension among employees who may feel there is an unfair standard in performance reviews.

    • Public trust. As the comments from the readers show, there is already skepticism about government employees, and nepotism only makes it worse.

    To read more about favoritism and nepotism, including case studies, visit our Web site.

  •  Small Fine For Fiesta Bowl's Ethics Penalties Sends Wrong Message

    Thursday, May. 12, 2011

    A $1 million fine has been imposed on the Fiesta Bowl, following an investigation of serious ethical and legal “irregularities.” Before you think that is a huge penalty, read further.

    The Bowl Championship Series (BCS) committee will allow the Fiesta Bowl to continue to be part of the lucrative bowl game business, with very few restrictions. In addition to the fine, the Bowl must hire a new executive director and remove all board members who were involved in “inappropriate behavior.” The organization will also need to conduct an annual audit and make supervisory changes in their existing audit firm.

    “I think the message is, they have cleaned house and addressed their problems,” said BCS Executive Director Bill Hancock. Meanwhile, the Arizona Attorney General’s Office is conducting a criminal investigation, and the IRS is reviewing the non-profit status of the organization.

    An investigative report details how the former chief executive officer John Junker regularly went on trips with his family, donated to charities, and used Bowl money for other personal uses. One especially outrageous expenditure was for Junker’s 50th birthday party, held at a Pebble Beach golf course. The board chair at the time attended the $32,188 event, although he maintains he never saw or authorized the party’s budget. A golf outing with a lobbyist held to conduct “very important and serious talks” cost the Bowl account more than $4,000. Golf outings were commonly known as the time for “long-range thinking.”

    Although I am not a big football fan, I am a big fan of ethical conduct, especially when the questionable actions of the Fiesta Bowl governing board include alleged campaign finance violations, illegal expenditures, high-priced junkets with elected officials, and poor oversight.

    College bowl games are big business. According to Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, “The Fiesta Bowl is a signature sporting event and critical economic driver for our travel and tourism industry.” In fact, the state is estimated to make tens of millions of dollars each year from bowl proceeds.

    But we are--or should be --talking about college football, about the athletic, academic, and character development of young men. Instead it all comes down to money. What kind of message is this sending to the athletes and their supporters?

    I cannot help wonder how much politics and money had to do with the decision to keep the Bowl and have $1 million directed to youth organizations. The non-profits who operate the event have more than $22 million in net assets, and any profits are supposed to go to charity anyway, under current governing rules.

    The blow to the state economy if the Fiesta Bowl was canceled would be significant. But the damage to the public trust by “looking the other way” is likely to lead to even more ethical lapses.

  •  Conflict Of Interest Versus First Amendment Rights: Where Do You Stand?

    Thursday, Apr. 21, 2011

    Few land-use decisions at the city council level make it up to the U.S. Supreme Court, but for Councilman Michael Carrigan, the trip to the high court takes place next week. It’s a case worth following.

    When the Sparks, Nevada city council considered approval of a casino in 2006, Carrigan disclosed the personal friendship he had with Carlo Vasquez, the casino spokesperson and consultant. The councilman dutifully checked with the city attorney for an opinion on a potential conflict of interest and was given a “green light” to proceed in the discussion and vote.

    The Nevada Ethics Commission, responding to complaints from casino opponents, ruled he should not have voted, given his relationship with Vasquez. They found that “a reasonable person in Councilman Carrigan’s position would not be able to remain objective,” and added that his friend had also served as his campaign manager.

    Carrigan argued the law violated his First Amendment rights, and successfully sued to get the decision overturned by the Nevada Supreme Court. Now the Ethics Commission is headed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the outcome of that decision is sure to reverberate across the country.

    An editorial in the Las Vegas Sun urges the high court to overturn the Nevada court’s opinion, saying “the public’s interest in good government takes precedence over the elected officials’ rights.” The editors added, “If elected leaders don’t like that, they have a choice—they don’t have to run for office.”

    Unfortunately it’s not that simple. The balance between transparency and the public’s interest and the rights of the individual elected official must be carefully considered.

    Where do you stand on this issue? Post your comments here and I’ll follow up with a blog post after the Supreme Court rules.

  •  LA Mayor Fined By Ethics Agency

    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.”

  •  Questioning The Ethics Of An Integrity Commissioner

    Tuesday, Mar. 8, 2011


    When Christiane Ouimet abruptly resigned last fall from her position last fall from the Ottowa Integrity Commission, she received a severance package worth $534,000 in addition to her normal pension benefits. Now a group of more than 30 advocacy groups has asked the government to cancel the severance package and to investigate the disgraced commissioner.

    The agreement negotiated by Ouimet required both the government and the former commissioner to seal the document, leading the Government Ethics Coalition to question whether others who have held similar positions have been given similar payouts when they have voluntarily retired. (Severance is usually given to those who are laid off, and at a rate of one or two week’s pay for each year of service.)

    It is not only her severance that has caused outcry, but also Ouimet’s actions as a commissioner. A report released after her sudden retirement showed she had acted on only a few of more than 200 complaints that had been brought before her office, leading to speculation that charges against anyone with political influence were simply dismissed. One whistleblower said her perfomance, “had undermined efforts to combat misconduct within the public service.

    It may prove embarrassing for the Ottawa government to pursue this investigation, but the ethics of an integrity commissioner should be above reproach.

  •  California City Seeks Lifeline By Hiring Top Government Ethics Attorneys

    Thursday, Feb. 10, 2011


    In an attempt to keep its status as a city, the southern California municipality of Vernon has brought in top lawyers to oversee an ethics investigation.
    Former state attorney general John Van de Kamp will work along with Robert Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies who once served as general counsel to the California Fair Political Practices Commission. The review of Vernon’s government is to include a specific look at ethics, conflict of interest, and open government issues.
    In the wake of several criminal investigations and indictments, an assembly bill has been introduced to disincorporate the city. Although the city has only 100 residents, it is home to some 1,800 businesses, and city administrator Mark Whitworth says “If you close the doors on the opportunities here, business are going to move out of the state or shut down altogether. We need to resolve this, and we need to move forward. If there are real issues, let’s address them.”
    While the probe in underway, Vernon continues to work with lawyers and lobbyists to defeat the legislation and a possible attempt by Los Angeles to have the industrial center made a part of Los Angeles County.


  •  City Employee Gets Big Fine For Small Sticker

    Tuesday, Feb. 8, 2011


    If you are caught using city property for a purpose other than city business you will probably be disciplined or fined for an ethics violation. But one Seattle employee is unhappy about the $300 he must pay for putting a police sticker on the back of his personal car.
    Joseph Benavides, who works for the city’s Department of Transportation, said when he found the 4-inch by 4-inch sticker with the Seattle Police Department logo in the traffic sign shop, he stuck one on his SUV “as an experiment” to see if it would hold up in the weather.
    The black sticker differs from the standard blue one issued to the police department. “I didn’t think anything about it,” he said. An ethics complaint was filed by a whistle blower, and the executive director of the commission said the “decal in the rear window of his blue Chevy Suburban could lead to confusion over whether his car was an official police vehicle.”
    After acknowledging he violated the code when he misused city property Benavides said,“ I had no idea it was wrong, none at all.”
    Was the sticker small? Yes. Was the $300 fine appropriate? What do you think?


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