Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Red Light, Green Light
for State Legislative Leaders

By Judy Nadler

1. Abandoning a Commitment to a Website
Six years ago all the members of the state legislature established web sites to inform their constituents of upcoming legislation, town hall meetings, and the like, and to offer their constituents a way to ask questions, provide feedback, and sign up for a quarterly electronic newsletter. Commentary in the media praised the legislators for responsiveness to their constituents. Senator Mars has decided to mail a printed four-page newsletter to all her constituents, but must decide where to find the money in her communications budget. She decides to furlough her webmaster to fund the mailing, which will be sent to "all postal patrons."


2. Environmentalist legislator with an SUV
You have refused a car allowance on the grounds that more legislators should be using public transit, carpooling, or bicycling. Your advocacy for clean air has earned you the "Environmentalist of the Year" award from the Sierra Club. After the transmission on your small sedan dies, you replace it with an SUV that has a slightly lower MPG rating, but accommodates your wife, kids, and soccer equipment. You do not plan to announce that you have bought a new car.


3. Internship for the Legislator's God-daughter
Representative Franklin has been hiring student interns from the state university for the past five years to do research during summer break. He established the guideline, featured on his website, that the students must be political science students and have a 3.6 GPA. His god-daughter is finishing her freshman year at the local community college, and, although she has the necessary GPA, she is working toward an associate of arts degree in biology. He figures that health care is an important subject to his constituents, edits the guidelines on his website to eliminate the requirement for political science as a major, and hires his god-daughter for one of the research internships.


4. Media Demands for Access to a Facebook Group
Representative Wilkins, majority leader of the State Senate, recently established a Facebook account, primarily to communicate with his staff and to build more community in the office. Realizing how easy it was to use, he invited several legislative colleagues to join, but maintains it as a "closed" site. The use of this social networking tool has been brought to the attention of the media, who are pressuring him to disclose who he has "friended" and to permit media scrutiny of the site. He has refused.


5. Help Writing State Contracting Specifications
The state is remodeling all Department of Motor Vehicles offices in order to update the technology. State Senator Witkins has worked unsuccessfully for a year to identify state employees with the kind of expertise needed to create a user-friendly system that could be networked with other state departments. The budget for the project does not include funds for a consultant. Witkins solicits advice from his golf partner, Byron Little, a vice president of Kipper Industries, a well-known high technology company. After discussing his frustration about the lack of in-house expertise in designing a state-of-the art system, Mr. Little offers to assist with the specifications. When the specs arrive, they call for a type of equipment currently manufactured only by Kipper Industries. Little's cover note indicates Kipper will provide the equipment "at cost" to take any conflict of interest out of the situation. Frankfort Technologies and several other companies complain about what they call a "no-bid, insider contract."

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

September 2009


New Materials

Center News