The City of Saratoga Springs has an Ethics Code which the city’s Ethics Board is charged with “enforcing.” I put enforcing in quotes as the Board is only authorized to offer opinions and has no disciplinary or enforcement powers.
In a letter dated June 14, 2019, a little more than a week before the Democratic primary, Patty Morrison, then a candidate for the Democratic nomination for Finance Commissioner, made the following accusation against her opponent Michele Madigan and requested the city’s Ethics Board investigate.
Your [JK: Commissioner Madigan] participation in a political fundraiser for your Commissioner of Finance campaign hosted by Saratoga Hospital attorney, Matt Jones at his home on March 8, 2019 along with his personal donation of $1,000.00, is a direct conflict of interest and can be viewed as clear violation of the City’s Code of Ethics.
Now there is an argument to be made about the problem of the influence of money in politics. How much donations like the one made by Jones might impact a legislator’s vote is a matter of legitimate discussion. I would also note, though, that in light of Ms. Morrison’s outrage over Commissioner Madigan’s campaign donations it is odd that she apparently does not have similar concerns regarding Joanne Yepsen who also received donations from Mr. Jones when she was running for Mayor and is now supporting Ms. Morrison’s quest for Commissioner of Finance.
The central issue here, however, is Ms. Morrison’s claim that Commissioner Madigan has violated the city’s Ethics Code and Ms. Morrison’s then use of this claim to seek publicity meant to damage her opponent.
While the city’s ethics code cites gifts or financial benefits to public officials as potential violations, it specifically excludes campaign contributions. Here is the language:
GIFT and FINANCIAL BENEFIT — Includes anything of value including, but not limited to, money, services, referrals, discounts, licenses, permits, contracts, authorizations, loans, travel, entertainment, hospitality, or any other gratuity or promise thereof. A financial transaction may be a financial benefit but shall not be a gift unless it is on terms not available to the general public. “Gift” and “financial benefit” do not include campaign contributions authorized by law. [JK: Emphasis Added]
So what does this tell us about Patty Morrison’s own ethics in this matter.
First, Ms. Morrison either did not actually take the opportunity to read the city’s ethics code before making her accusation or she made the accusation knowing it was false. Bear in mind, this is a person seeking to handle the city’s finances.
Secondly, even if the issue of the influence of campaign contributions on a legislator’s behavior were addressed in the city’s ethics code, there would have to be some actual incident that would link a vote to a contribution to make a case. There has been no such vote on the hospital which Mr. Jones represents.
But with the primary only a little over a week away Ms. Morrison’s problem was she needed to generate publicity about her accusation before the election. She could not wait until there was an actual vote on the hospital to make her complaint to the Ethics Board.
Ms. Morrison has every right to challenge Commissioner Madigan regarding who contributes to her campaign. What she does not have a right to do is to abuse the city’s Ethics Board procedure to smear her opponent.
I suspect some readers will dismiss these criticisms as nit picking but aside from the ethical issues of misrepresenting the city’s Ethics Code, the ability to carefully analyze regulations and statutes is central to functioning effectively as the Commissioner of Finance. There is a place for moral outrage, but if one is to serve as Commissioner of Finance, outrage must be tempered by a commitment to adhere rigorously to the “details” that managing the public’s finances require.