Monday, November 8, 2010

Ethics, Gifts and Travel Abroad

No, don't get excited. I'm not throwing any flags on Mayor Ravenstahl and his chief of staff's recent trip to Shanghai, China and Seoul, S. Korea. Very legitimate and laudable business in my own opinion and in those of most others. But thinking about it does lead one down some interesting paths.

The first question everybody asked is, "Who's paying for this?" Although it was a business venture the air travel, accommodations, dining and incidentals would not pay for themselves, and over 10 days it is not as though there would be zero opportunity for business-class leisure and refreshment. Heck, even if the official schedule was jam packed solid, I'm still jealous. Travel broadens one.

Shortly we discovered that Shanghai was paying for the officials' trip to Shanghai, and that the Allegheny Conference and the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance (which is also the Allegheny Conference) for the trip to Seoul. And everyone said, "Oh."

Now, if we had learned UPMC for example was paying for the leg to Seoul, of course that would have been uproarious. Similarly had it been Duquesne Light, Target, K & L Gates, or any other discreet outfit with business presently or frequently enough before the city, there would have been some concerns: does the city now owe somebody a favor, or at least a much more generous hearing?

Yet join most every major prominent regional corporate interest together and viola, we instinctively view it as just fine. Almost as though the Conference is some kind of government, now. I don't argue that the Conference, in its many facets and functions, does not do a lot of good and sincere work for the city and the region -- but that does not automatically mean that their interests can not compete or conflict with the interests and desires of other interested Pittsburghers. Indeed it exists, in large part, to advocate policy and engage in the political process.

In fact, let's imagine William's Widgets desired itself to whisk the Mayor off to the Korean peninsula, and to Singapore. Realizing how that would look, how difficult would it be to filter the money and handle the logistics through the Conference, if it is an active member?

So then. Understanding that the Conference is a player and represents an identifiable hue of players, if anyone were to feel concerned that "these" interests were appropriating and unduly ingratiating themselves with Mr. Ravenstahl, we actually have vehicles to sort that out! It's called the City Ethics Code and the City Ethics Board, and it was recently reformed and refurbished.

The rules state, if a public official receives a "gift" worth over $100 it requires electronic disclosure, and if $500 or more, a more fulsome explanation and a review by two members of the Ethics Board. Now, looking at other language in the Code, it is clearly somewhat debatable whether the side-trip to Korea for example should even count as a "gift", and to what extent does it matter that it's in anybody's "official capacity" and conceivably even accorded by a "sponsoring organization." Maybe there is, or should be, something special about the Conference or a chamber of commerce.

What engaging in the City Ethics process would do, however, is begin building a body of thoughtful precedent for ethical behavior. We can begin applying categorical imperatives to real-life situations -- which can absolve proper behavior when it's being questioned for questionable purposes, and clarify gray-toned behavior which might actually deviate from norms we would all like to see established.

And the danger of not using these ethics tools at all is, of course, that eventually, some official actually will accept a sizable gift for "Win a City Contract Day," and we will attempt to remedy this under our ethics laws, enabling this malefactor to turn around and say, "We have never used our ethics laws, the Board is atrophied as an institution, we can't possibly begin applying these dated rules so selectively!"

Which brings us to the penalty flag I actually am throwing. We see that since the new ethics legislation passed last summer, requiring the electronic disclosure of all gifts valued at over $100 to any city officials, exactly two gifts have been declared -- by the same guy.

Bravo, Mr. Molinaro! And bravo to the scores, perhaps hundreds of remaining city officials, who have all scrupulously refrained from accepting a single item of three-digit value from any conceivably interested party this entire last year!

It appears Pittsburgh is well on the road to another cycle of bitter scandal, constitutional crisis and unsatisfying resolution. Let's start flexing our ethics muscles not because we must, but because we can. Because it's healthy. Because it's helpful.


  1. Let us just say Starkist and Bayer

  2. What? Is that code? I can see the Bayer Corp. -- but I never would have dreamed our mayor was in the pocket of Big Tuna.