Ethics Codes in an Era of Easy Money

Ethics Codes in an Era of Easy Money

Sometimes, two realities are juxtaposed in just such a way that one can’t help but see the absurdity.

Such is the case, for me, with the juxtaposition of the current deliberations in Broward County over loosening gift laws and the dollar figures flowing toward some of our state’s and our nation’s most prominent political figures.

Broward County has an ethics code courtesy of the general public’s adoption of a new charter a few years back with a provision that the ethics code would be written by an independent commission and accepted wholesale or put before the voters.

There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with the code, but some of its provisions may be more rigorous than really is necessary. For example, the gift prohibition, when it comes to “lobbyists” and their employers or “principals,” as well as vendors and contractors, is absolute. If a city councilmember happens to be a neighbor of a “lobbyist,” etc., and is invited for a glass of iced tea on the front porch in the early evening, he/she is obligated to say, “no, thank you” (I think the code would allow him/her to accept a chair on the front porch, but I’m not sure). More difficult still, the councilmember’s relatives are similarly obligated to refuse.

Just keeping track of from whom one may receive and to whom one may give gifts, might be a part-time job under such a code. The only practical option, out of the lawyer’s beloved “abundance of caution,” might be to refuse any gift from anyone.

In fairness to these excessively strict provisions, many will attest to the extent to which interested parties have, in less regulated times, curried favor by regularly buying drinks and meals, sending gifts, etc. When I look back on my own public service, and some of these practices, I realize how easily I fell into accepting such tokens of esteem or courtesy (or influence) as my due. It’s not a difficult psychological leap for an elected official especially, and all too many of us probably make it without realizing it.

But the Broward County code is so sweeping that it almost certainly creates offenses where none was intended and no influence of any kind promoted.

Meanwhile, as Broward County struggles with whether or not to allow a cup of coffee to be an acceptable gift, our state’s leaders and our nation’s would-be leaders are urging powerful interests to drop six-, seven- and eight-figure checks on their “good causes” and, only somewhat indirectly, on their campaigns for greater political power. For example:

It has been widely publicized that on the same day Governor Scott announced his hospital commission, his political committee received a check for $100,000 from a major private hospital group.

Former Governor Jeb Bush is carefully avoiding being a declared candidate so that he can travel the country raising money for a SuperPac that, once he announces, clearly will be working aggressively with its millions to see him elected president. A not-for-profit with a similar name, Right to Rise Policy Solutions, reportedly is housing, on nice short-term contracts, a number of key staff-in-waiting for his presidential campaign operation.

The money going to former President Bill Clinton’s foundation allegedly has come in large (multi-million dollar) chunks from individuals and countries with considerable interest in the work then-Secretary of State and now presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was and is doing. It also has been reported that dozens of speeches for which Bill Clinton was paid large sums (totally as much as $50 million) and which presented at least potential conflicts of interest for then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were given rapid approval after what has been alleged to be cursory review.

$100,000. A few million dollars. Well-paid jobs for friends. Well-paid speaking engagements.

And we’re worrying about a cup of coffee?