Friday, April 12, 2013

Brushing the Ethics Line | Casey's Last Word

If you took a college class in urban government, chances are you have heard of George Washington Plunkitt.

He was a New York legislator between 1884 and 1904, and a member of the legendary Tammany Hall political machine.

Plunkitt grew quite rich through politics, and boasted of it.

But he insisted he never took bribes or kick-backs.

He got rich, he said, through “honest graft.”

Here’s one example, in his own words:

“My party’s in power in the city, and it’s goin' to undertake a lot of public improvements. Well, I’m tipped off, say, that they’re going to lay out a new park at a certain place. I see my opportunity and I take it. I go to that place and I buy up all the land I can in the neighborhood. Then the board of this or that makes its plan public, and there is a rush to get my land, which nobody cared particular for before.”

Plunkitt was stunningly successful at knowing where the city was going to buy land.

Plunkitt came to mind last week after City Council voted unanimously to buy a piece of land for a branch library in Councilwoman Elisa Chan’s North Side district.

Only afterwards, the next day, did Chan inform her council colleagues that she and her husband own the property next door.

It is where she has the offices of her engineering company.

Does this make Chan a George Washington Plunkitt?

Only if she finds a way to sell her property to someone willing to pay a premium to be next to a city library.

Sure, she should have disclosed her ownership and she should have abstained.

In her defense, perhaps 10 city staffers were aware of the situation.
She wasn’t exactly hiding it.

No, Chan is not Plunkitt, but she should be grateful that she isn’t Robert Marbut.

Let me explain.

Back in 1995, Marbut was married to a mid-level executive at Diamond Shamrock.

That company won a sealed bid competition to supply the city with gasoline and diesel.

But then-City Attorney Frank Garza ruled that it would not be enough for Marbut to abstain.

If the City gave the contract to Diamond Shamrock, he would automatically be removed from office.

Garza’s ruling was based on this City Charter provision:

No officer or employee of the City shall have a financial interest, direct or indirect, in any contract with the City, or shall be financially interested, directly or indirectly, in the sale to the City of any land, materials, supplies or service, except on behalf of the City as an officer or employee.

Any willful violation of this section shall constitute malfeasance in office, and any officer or employee guilty thereof shall thereby forfeit his office or position.

Despite the fact that Marbut’s wife was not involved in winning the contract and would receive no bonus or other benefit from it, Garza ruled that she and therefore her husband had “a financial interest, directly or indirectly,” in the contract.

In the end, Diamond Shamrock withdrew its bid and the citizens paid $21,000 more to the next lowest bidder.

It is rare that this provision of the Charter is interpreted so strictly.

I’ve long felt, but couldn’t prove, that this unusual burst of rectitude was fueled by animosity between then-Mayor Bill Thornton and Marbut.

Current City Attorney Michael Bernard said he wouldn’t have interpreted Marbut as having an interest.

As for Chan, he said recent rulings by the City’s Ethics Commission have held that the city’s purchase of the adjacent land would be a problem for Chan only if she benefited in a particular way that didn’t also apply to other property owners in the vicinity.

Of course if there happened to be a different city attorney and a different mayor, being right next door might be ruled to be particularly beneficial.

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