Bright Lines and Full Disclosure - Testimony to Mayor Nutter's Advisory Task Force on Ethics and Campaign Finance Reform
by Adam Lang
January 10, 2009
There is an epidemic taking place in American government. It seems a week doesn't go by where you don't hear about some government official abusing the public trust for their own benefit. Sadly Philadelphia and Pennsylvania have been a large part of the problem. Philadelphia has been at the heart of America's crisis of ethics and we need to take strong action to solve the problem.
When addressing ethics from a legislative standpoint, it needs to be done with the realization that people typically already know what is right and wrong. They do it because there are no legal prohibitions. The law can not teach morality, but it can create bright lines defining illegal activity. When creating ethics laws, we need to define prohibited actions in a manner that does not create more gray areas. We also need to realize when disclosure of activities is sufficient compared to ban of activities.
For examples, I will be addressing two important pieces of ethics legislation that have been submitted by Councilman Rizzo.
In Bill No. 080658 - Gifts, Loans and Favors to City Personnel, it addresses improper gifts and services to elected officials and government employees. This is a very important piece of legislation that I support. There are two instances where it needs to be tightened to pass the bright lines test. In section 2(a) it states: The solicitation or acceptance of something of monetary value from a friend or relative when the circumstances make it clear that the motivation for the action is a personal or family relationship. The issue here is that such actions are never clear and there is no definition of what constitutes a "friend". A test we can do is apply the law to a current situation and see if it clarifies any wrong doing. Currently there is a public official that is being investigated for accepting money and services from a developer during a time of personal issues. He gave him a place to stay to help him out. With the passage of this section, it would not clarify if what took place was illegal or not. One person may say it is clearly an act of friendship where another person will say it is an act of influencing a public official.
The other issue is using the term "nominal value". It again leaves a very subjective boundary of activity. For a multi-millionaire four vacuums may be nominal, but not so for someone who makes $20,000 a year.
The solution is to completely prohibit the activity regardless of circumstances or value. If you are a City Officer or Employee, you are not allowed to take any gifts from anyone seeking or doing business with the government. It is simple and easy for anyone to understand. With such a modification to the proposed law, it would significantly help in delineating between acceptable and unacceptable behavior.
In Bill No. 080660 - Outside Employment, it addresses City employees having a second job in conflict with City government. This is another important bill that I support. In this bill there is an instance of exceptions where initially applying disclosure may be more suitable than prohibitions. For example, we have doctors and nurses that work for the City health centers but may also hold jobs with Temple Health. The legislation as is would seem t prevent them from practicing medicine outside of the health center. A proposed modification to the law could be, instead of prohibition of outside employment, full disclosure - employer, salary and duties - submitted to the Ethics Board every year and require making the information publicly available. This is even more evident when academia is given special exception even though it has some of the largest contracts with the City. It will protect systems from breaking and turning law abiding citizens into criminals accidentally. In the future, specific prohibitions can always be added if deemed necessary.
These guidelines can be applied to all ethics legislation and recommendations to strengthen very important and necessary laws being proposed. Clearly defining and disclosing conflicting activities will be a significant help in addressing the issue of public abuses.
This was the testimony presented to Mayor Nutter's Advisory Task Force on Ethics and Campaign Finance Reform on January 10, 2009.