Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Government Ethics Cases for City Finance Directors

by Judy Nadler

Read each of these scenarios, then determine if they get a "red light" (do not proceed), "green light" (no problems seen), or "yellow light" (not so sure, proceed with caution or legal advice).

  1. You receive an e-mail at city hall which contains a series of "dumb blonde" jokes. They strike you as pretty funny, so you forward the message to the department heads and about a dozen friends outside the city.
  2. A former employee of the finance department sets up a consulting business and approaches you for a letter of reference. He submits a draft document, which makes mention of several projects he is taking credit for. You know he was a minor player in one of these and feel uncomfortable with his suggestion that the letter be on city letterhead, "just to make it more official."
  3. Your college fraternity brother has just moved to town and established his IT consulting business. Although the city has no RFP yet, the council has authorized a new financial accounting system for the next budget cycle. You arrange for a behind-the-scenes tour, knowing he is interested in bidding on the contract.
  4. The majority of the council is up for re-election. There are some complex financing issues coming up, and you know one of the candidates, a successful venture capitalist. Your job would be much easier if there were someone on the council who really understood financial issues, and people in the community are asking you how you're going to vote on Election Day.
  5. You're headed to the statewide municipal finance director's annual conference and are invited by several underwriters to play golf and have dinner. Several of the invitations are from banks that have RFPs currently before the city. Your golf game isn't that great, so you're considering just the dinner invitations.
  6. Your new city manager has strongly recommended All-Star Capital Advisors, a firm he worked with in his last position. You have been working for more than 5 years with a trusted, well-established team of financial specialists and have heard that there are some questions surrounding the professional and ethical behaviors of the new firm.
  7. A draft fiscal analysis report for a major development project is coming before the city council. While you were not consulted in the hiring of the outside counsel, you have been interviewed for your input on the document. Despite your comments, the draft report omits key issues that may have distorted the conclusions. When confronted with your concerns, the firm changes a few words of the report but comes to the same conclusion, which is favorable for the development. The city council has already voiced support for the project and has criticized you as a "nit picker."
  8. The mayor submits a series of large and unusual monthly expenditure reimbursement requests, and your accounts payable staff raises questions about the appropriateness of the expenditures and the lack of documentation. The city manager is supportive, but suggests that you do "what ever needs to be done" to satisfy reporting requirements.
  9. You are recruiting for an important position in the Finance Department and encouraged by the applications you've received through an open and competitive process. The HR director comments favorably on one of the candidates, indicating she knows him through family connections. Several weeks later, you have narrowed the selection to two individuals; neither one is the HR director's acquaintance. You run into her in the city hall cafeteria, where she asks how the recruitment and selection process is going, and how did her family friend do?
  10. The city purchasing manager has a surplus of laptop computers piling up in the warehouse and suggests he sell them on E-Bay or offer them to other city employees. His own college-age sons would be interested as well. Recently another city employee reports to you that a purchasing and warehouse staff member was seen putting cardboard boxes into his personal van at lunchtime.

Judy Nadler is senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

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