In City Hall: A Quiet Fight Over Ethics
Council president wants his fingerprints off law, then double-crosses Ethics Board
Published: February 13, 2013
The head of the city’s Ethics Board asked Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to veto an ethics bill, saying it creates too broad an exemption for conflicts of interest.
Meanwhile, the City Council voted on Feb. 4 to delay its final vote on another ethics bill “indefinitely,” without any explanation to the ethics board or the public.
“That was the first we’d heard it was going to be held,” says Ethics Board chair Linda B. “Lu” Pierson, who was sitting in the audience at the council meeting. “We had presumed it was on track.”
The two bills aren’t directly linked, but their unusual fates—the council has seldom, if ever, tabled a bill “indefinitely”; the two-year-old Ethics Board has never before asked for a veto and the mayor has yet to veto any council legislation—are the result of an internal spat that may have arisen from a simple misunderstanding.
More likely it’s a power play.
Both bills have their roots in old problems. Bill 12-0142, which was held indefinitely, came at the request of both the Ethics Board and the City’s Inspector General, which discovered “attempts to take undue advantage of certain gaps in the Ethics code,” according to a report on the bill from the Ethics Board. The report goes on to detail a case in which a prominent lobbyist offered a gift to a City Council member, made “legal” by the fact that the lobbyist had not yet registered as a lobbyist that year. The report refers to another case in which a city official was employed by a private company with a blanket contract with a city agency. No names are mentioned.
The bill says the public official may not be employed by or “have a financial interest in any person that is negotiating or has entered into a contract with the city or any of its agencies if” the public official has any of a number of potential connections to the city agency that will administer the outside contract.
First District Councilman James Kraft says he was asked to hold the bill because, “the way some people were interpreting it,” it could be too broad a prohibition on outside employment. “You couldn’t have a job that could have anything to do with anyone who would do any business with the city,” he explains. “So we’re looking to see how broad this interpretation is because we don’t want any elected official or employee of the city directly dealing with someone who is doing business with the city. You don’t want it to be two, three, four levels away.”
The matter could be cleared up quickly—or not. “There may be no issue at all,” says Kraft, whose Judiciary and Legislative Investigations Committee handles these matters. “Or we might have to send it back to committee.”
Asked who had requested the hold, Kraft grows evasive. At first he says he can’t recall, and then he says it was more than one person. “They can tell you if they want to,” he says.
Many City Council bills are introduced with both the sponsoring councilperson and, where appropriate, the outside entity—a city agency or a developer seeking a zoning change, for example—divulged prominently. The ethics matters appear to require more discretion, as the other bill, 12-0163, illustrates.
Styled as an “Administration” bill submitted at the Board of Ethics’ request, it was actually introduced on behalf of Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young, the bill’s intended beneficiary.
Young has been criticized for recusing himself on many issues because a brother and a sister have city jobs. Both are employed in positions with no management authority, but the law as written required Young, who sits on the Board of Estimates, to abstain from all votes affecting their agencies—DPW’s Water and Wastewater division and the Mayor’s Office of Information Technology.
“I think the bottom line is that you have a situation where an individual has relatives who would not benefit in any way, shape, or form, but because of their familiar status, they serve as a block to him serving the duties that he is charged with,” says Young’s spokesperson Lester Davis.
Pierson says she agrees, adding that Young “wasn’t the only one with this issue.”
Last summer, at Young’s request, Avery Aisenstark of Legislative Reference drafted three versions of the bill for review by Young and by the Ethics Board, says Pierson.
“We were clear that we could only support one,” she says. That was the most restrictive one, under which the board would write a regulation to determine on a case-by-case basis if a given conflict could be exempted on a blanket basis.
The chosen bill was introduced but, instead of Young’s name on it as the requester, he asked that the Ethics Board itself be named the bill’s requester. The Board agreed to that, and the bill was heard in committee and advanced without debate.
Then, on Dec. 18, it was suddenly amended—in effect turned into a less restrictive bill, one which cuts the Ethics Board out completely. As amended, the bill exempts all city agencies from consideration under its provisions, so that even if a city official had a spouse who headed a city agency, the official would be able to vote on matters affecting that agency.
Asked why this was done, Davis denies there is any problem. Then he says the Ethics Board was being unreasonable. “OK, first, the board has already determined that no conflicts exist,” he says. “On the other hand, they said, ‘When you need a decision on these things we already said no conflicts exist, we want you to come to us.’ And there is no process.”
But the bill did not say that. It said the board would come up with a regulation to allow a blanket exemption. Pierson says the regulation could have been written quickly. “If legislative reference had drafted the rule, we might have been able to avoid all this,” she says.
Reminded of that, Young says the bill as amended closely matches one of the other drafts. He points to Aisenstark’s dual role as chief of Legislative Reference (which drafts the bills) and advisor to the Ethics Board, saying, “Why would you draft three if you couldn’t support two of them?”
Aisenstark declines to comment, but the answer is obvious: He drafted three for the review of the interested parties, not knowing which—if any—would be acceptable to everyone.
Pierson introduces another complication: At a meeting with Young’s staff, one staff member said they thought Aisenstark had submitted the more restrictive bill in error and that they were simply correcting his mistake. Pierson makes clear that she doesn’t buy this explanation.
After the switcharoo, Pierson sent a scathing memo to Kraft. “We are particularly concerned about the stealth-like manner in which this amendment was proposed and adopted—without any advance notice to or discussion with, let alone seeking input from, the Ethics Board,” Pierson wrote. “Since the ’80s, such a failure to communicate in good faith on ethics legislation has been unheard of.”
The letter offended Kraft. “She didn’t even come to the hearing—and we get this nasty letter from her,” he says. “A very indignant and insulting letter. . . when you have yet to come to the committee and explain any of it.
“I find it all rather amusing.”
At Pierson’s request, Kraft asked that the bill be amended to remove the Ethics Board’s name from it before the full council passed it on Feb. 4. Though he had just spent five minutes reading a long statement about parking in Canton, Kraft offered not a word to the council or spectators about the reason for the change.
A spokesperson for Mayor Stephanie Rawlings Blake did not reply to an email seeking comment on the matter.
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