Saturday, February 16, 2013

Council Ethics Committee Postpones Action On Truth In Gift Reporting Ordinance

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City-County Councilor Brian Mahern has a very sensible proposal to amend the gift-reporting requirement for City-County Council members under the city's ethics code to provide a slightly more transparent reporting of gifts council members receive from persons and entities doing business or seeking to do business  with the city or seeking to influence a council action. There are many holes in the current gift-reporting law, some of which Mahern's proposal address and many of which it does not address.  Sadly, the Council's Ethics Committee saw fit to delay action on Mahern's bill because the Council's leadership and most of its members simply don't want to provide more disclosure of gifts than they are currently required for obvious reasons.

There are major weaknesses in the current law, not the least of which is its narrow application. Individuals and businesses are permitted to make gifts to councilors that are never subject to reporting regardless of their value if they are not currently doing business or seeking to do business with the city, or currently seeking to influence council action. A gift valued at less than $100 is exempt from disclosure unless a person or entity makes several gifts below the reporting threshold totaling at least $250 in a calendar year. Thus, a lobbyist or someone doing business with the city could take a council member to St. Elmo's to three separate dinners during a calendar year costing $249.00 and not be required to disclose those gifts. A council member could be gifted a ticket to a Colts or Pacers game on two different occasions with a value of $120 each and not be subject to the reporting requirement. Moreover, any gifts provided to the council member's spouse or children is not reportable. So in the examples provided above, if a spouse or child of the councilor who accompanied the councilor to dinner or a Colts game, the value of their meals and tickets would not trigger the disclosure requirement.

Perhaps the largest single source of gifting to council members is currently exempt from disclosure. That includes gifts made by other governmental entities, and in particular, the Capital Improvement Board. The CIB and the Mayor's Office are furnished suites in which to entertain at both Lucas Oil Stadium and Banker's Life Fieldhouse under the terms of the lease agreements with the Colts and Pacers. Additionally, the CIB and the Mayor's Office have a block of tickets to every game held in those facilities. Council members are not required to report gifts from the Mayor's office, the CIB or any other governmental entity regardless of value. Any gift a council member accepts from the CIB, the Health & Hospital Corporation, the Indianapolis/Marion Co. Library or IndyGo are exempt.

Interestingly, if council members are taken on a trip related to economic development activities or government-related purpose, which could be valued in the many hundreds, if not more than a thousand dollars, the value of that trip need not be disclosed. This allows the pay-to-play contractors, for example, to launder gifts to council members through Develop Indy, for example, to avoid triggering disclosure of a gift under the city's ethics code. Moreover, any reportable gift required to be reported under current law need only be itemized identifying the source on the council member's annual financial disclosure form; the value of the gift does not have to be disclosed. The public only knows that the council member received a gift of at least $100 or more, or several gifts totalling $250 or more from a source that requires disclosure under the law.

Councilor Mahern's Proposal 28 would take some baby steps in the right direction in providing more disclosure. Yet it's more than the most corrupt city council in the state of Indiana can swallow. Mahern's proposal would include gifts made to a councilor's spouse or children as reportable gifts. It would also require a council member to report gifts from other governmental entities, including municipal corporations like the CIB. Frankly, I think the disclosure thresholds provided under the current law are too high and exempt far too many gifts of substantial value. I also don't think it should only apply to those currently doing or seeking business with the city or seeking to influence a council decision, and it certainly shouldn't exempt economic development-related trips council members accept. Perhaps that's why the majority of the council members are so anxious to pass out hundreds of millions of our tax dollars to private developers.

The bottom line is that almost all council members are currently pocketing several thousand dollars a year in gifts, at a minimum, that you know nothing about. I've previously reported that I believe Mayor Greg Ballard and his family have accepted gifts of value since he became mayor that at least equal, if not exceed, the salary he earns from supposedly serving all the citizens of Indianapolis. I provide the video of the Ethics Committee meeting so you can watch for yourself how squeamish these guys get when you start talking about reporting all the freebies they get to pocket simply because they're on the council. Pay particular interest to Councilor Leroy Simpson's comments about Mahern's proposal not being vetted or his worry that council members might be held accountable for misreporting gifts and their amounts if Councilor Mahern's proposal is adopted. I don't recall similar concerns being voiced when Councilor Simpson and his Democratic colleagues rammed through a $3.5 million spending bill to benefit a grocery store development in record time. Naturally, nobody from the Indianapolis Star or other media covered the meeting. Nothing to see here, move along.


Had Enough Indy? said...

I've only begun to watch this hearing - thanks for posting the clip. I am shocked to see only 4 of the 6 members present. It looks like Councillors Brown and Cain weren't there on time, perhaps coming in late.

Once again, Councillor Mahern is on the right side of an important issue. And once again, the Council ignores what is in the best interest of the public. What a shame.

Had Enough Indy? said...

I have to say I am cautiously hopeful due to comments by Simpson and, mostly, Miller. We shall see, though.

Flogger said...

Now here is oxymoron "Council Ethics Committee."

I grew-up in Chicago during the reign of Mayor Daley-The Elder. Len 'O Connor wrote an excellent book about him-"Clout." We all knew what made the levers of Government in Chicago in those days move, "Clout" give us the story.

When I moved to Indy in the 70's I recall this attitude here that some how Chicago was this corrupt Sodom and Gomorrah and that because of Hoosier Values corruption stopped at the state line.

I always thought the major difference was not the innate corruptibility of us Illini vs Hoosiers, but the Journalistic standards of the Chicago Press which was not cowed back then by someone even as powerful as Daley -The Elder.

With the exception of Nuvo's Harrison Ullman who had been consigned to the Siberia of Media in Indy, the content of The Star and TV Media was sorely lacking.

I gather reporting here by the Mega-Media is like that old question, "If a tree falls in the forest, and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?"

The three monkeys are at work here in the Mega-Media, Hear no evil, Speak no Evil, and See No Evil.

Marycatherine Barton said...

Maybe a Mayor Mahern is in Indianapolis's future, Brian, that is. How about it, Gannett?