Anti-corruption group’s ethics boards face ethical problems

By Yaël Ossowski  / August 31, 2015 / Watchdog.org

Just eight months after it was created to eliminate corruption in local government, the Tallahassee Ethics Board seems to have ethics problems of its own.

At the end of its July meeting, board
members quietly agreed to hire as their legal counsel the very same law
firm that represents the city commission — which the board is supposed
to police.

“It was all done behind closed doors,” Peter Butzin, chair of Common
Cause Florida and until now one of the ethics board’s key supporters,
told the Tallahassee Democrat. “We don’t even know who made the decision.”

The process for forming the ethics board
in Tallahassee is mandated by a 2014 voter-approved amendment. It gives
four local institutions one nomination each, including the chief judge
and state attorney of the Second Judicial Circuit and the presidents of
Florida State and Florida A&M universities. Strangely, the board
nominees are subject to final approval by the same city commissioners
they’ll oversee.

Butzin has said he’ll sue the board if it doesn’t implement a more transparent method for choosing ethics officers.

Despite that debacle, Represent.us, the group that bankrolled the Florida effort, sees the Tallahassee ethics board as a model for cities across the nation.

Represent.us, which somewhat ominously calls its nationwide campaign “The Plan,” has already launched new efforts to establish appointed ethics boards in Lansing, Michigan, and Seattle, Washington.

The process for forming the ethics board
in Tallahassee is mandated by a 2014 voter-approved amendment. It gives
four local institutions one nomination each – including the chief judge
and state attorney of the Second Judicial Circuit; and the presidents
of Florida State University and Florida A&M University. Strangely,
the board nominees are subject to final approval by the same city
commissioners they’ll oversee.

Represent.us remains adamant that, despite Tallahassee, nothing is wrong with The Plan.

“The right-left coalition that led the campaign (in Tallahassee)
continues to fight to ensure proper implementation of the charter
amendment and there’s ongoing work needed to raise the ethical bar and
hold city officials accountable,” Dan Krassner, political director of
Represent.us, told Watchdog.org in an email.

At least one academic study,
from the University of Missouri in 2013, raises doubts about the
effectiveness of campaign finance reforms implemented at the local
level.

Whether they involved large institutions or wealthy individuals, the
authors concluded, the passing of campaign finance reforms in states
they studied had no impact on corruption.

“Overall, we find no strong or convincing evidence that state
campaign finance reforms reduce public corruption,” state authors
Adriana Cordis of the University of South Carolina Upstate and Jeff
Milyo of the University of Missouri.

The laws have great public appeal, the authors concluded, but don’t deliver the promised results.

With ethics boards in place to police political donors and campaigns
in key swing states, Represent.us might shift the balance of power
toward unelected committees than produce more democratic elections.

Pressed for their own donor information, Represent.us sent
Watchdog.org its latest list of contributors, including mega-donors the
Hewlett Foundation, the Mertz Gilmore Foundation and the Rockefeller
Brothers Fund. Each gave Represent.us more than $10,000.

In 2013, the organization amassed more than $1.4 million for its lobby and education efforts, according to its tax records, showing it has significant backing to continue pushing for ethics boards across the country for months to come.

Represent.us sees no irony in saying its prime directive is to drive money — other people’s money, of course — out of politics.

“(We) believe there’s a big difference between a nonprofit
organization using donations from members and foundations to educate the
public and organize like-minded citizens and the kind of behavior we’re
denouncing,” Krassner said.

Yaël Ossowski is a Canadian-American journalist and writer living in Vienna. He is founder and editor of Devolution Review, deputy director at the Consumer Choice Center, and senior development officer for Students For Liberty. He was previously a national investigative reporter at Watchdog.org. He has a Master’s Degree in Philosophy, Politics, Economics (PPE) from the CEVRO Institute in Prague and a Bachelor's in Political Science from Concordia University, Montreal. Born in Québec and raised in the southern United States, he currently lives in Vienna, Austria, and his writings have appeared in newspapers, magazines, and online outlets across the world in multiple languages.
Website https://yael.ca
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