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Doing No Favors Strong Ethics Enforcement Trumps Criminal System For Handling, Deterring Shady Deals

A Cloud Over Hartford


February 01, 2009

Eighteen months ago, Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez admitted that doing personal business with a city contractor was wrong, and yet nothing was done about it. Instead, there has been a long criminal investigation ending in an arrest warrant.

In May 2006, the mayor referred an ethics matter involving a former school building committee chairman to the city's ethics commission. He could have done the same with his own situation.

The ethics commission, which consists of the mayor's appointees, has the power to investigate the mayor's relationship with the contractor, but it apparently chose not to.

Had the matter gone before the ethics commission, it is likely that the mayor would have been found to have violated the city's ethics code: "No officer .?.?. shall .?.?. engage in any financial dealings with any persons whose activities are regulated or supervised by his/her department, board, commission or agency or accept a gift from such persons." The commission might have found other violations, as well.

But even if it had found violations, the ethics commission has no teeth. The commission cannot fine or even reprimand an elected official. It can only "recommend disciplinary action to appropriate parties in accordance with city procedures and policies." To whom do you recommend discipline of a mayor, and according to what procedures?

Hartford's ethics program is not working. If it were, the mayor would have thought twice before doing business with a city contractor. And if he did it anyway, he would have ended up paying the contractor everything the job was worth, plus a fine. The contractor could have had any contract with the city voided (per the ethics code) and he may have been prevented from bidding for contracts in the future. A contractor who knows he may lose a contract is going to follow the law.

If Hartford had an effective ethics program, there would have been no need to wait for an indictment or make the difficult case for the crime of bribery. As the mayor has said, what he did was wrong, whether or not it involved a bribe; and something should have happened, at least to send a message to other city officials.

Many indicted mayors have a history of not dealing responsibly with city contracts and contractors, not to mention with revelations of their misconduct. Baltimore's mayor, indicted earlier this month, gave business to her sister and to her former campaign manager, and the city's ethics program did nothing to stop or penalize this behavior.

Memphis, which has had more than 60 officials, employees and contractors convicted in the past eight years, also has a weak ethics program. Currently, the Memphis city attorney is doing an "impartial" investigation of the mayor relating to suspicious land dealings with a city contractor. The chairman of the Detroit Board of Ethics raised money for the indicted mayor's defense fund, completely undermining the board's authority (the mayor resigned in September, after six months of holding a dark cloud over the city). When an ethics commission chairman engages in behavior this unethical, you know the ethics program is worthless.

Mayors should not be above ethics laws. In fact, they should be the ones setting the tone of their city's ethical environment. Hartford's mayor is not alone in Connecticut (or, clearly, in the U.S.) in his failure at providing ethical leadership. He left the job of ethics enforcement to the criminal authorities, who move slowly, cost a lot of money and have a very heavy burden of proof. He has only himself to blame for being in this position.

The failure to nip this case in the bud long ago is a good argument for having municipal ethics matters dealt with quickly, independently and effectively at the state level, as happens in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and many other states. This possibility is currently being studied by a state Municipal Ethics Task Force.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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