I like Mayor Brett Lee. I donated to his campaign. I endorsed him and put his lawn sign on my lawn. I voted for him. I haven’t always agreed with his votes on Council, but that’s normal. But now Mayor Lee plans on hosting a fundraiser for the Davis Vanguard next month. This is an ethical breach that is different from a disagreement about policy or process. Elected officials – especially those who may be running for re-election soon – should not be raising money for purported news outlets, as Mayor Lee is planning on doing for the Vanguard.
It doesn’t help that the Vanguard’s track record is none too clean. David Greenwald, founder of and primary writer on the Vanguard, has exhibited a lack of journalistic ethics. The Davis Vanguard is alleged to have participated in a political campaign in violation of its non-profit status; an IRS complaint was filed along with substantiating evidence. It has developed a reputation for hostile attacks against commenters, forcing repeated changes to its comment policy (most recently to disallow anonymous commenters, although it’s not clear that this change in policy has helped improve the climate for commenters). And it has failed to follow the Institute for Non-Profit News’s ethical guidelines by failing to be fully transparent about the funding of its news operations, particularly with respect to advertisements from local developers, calling into question its “editorial independence from all revenue sources to ensure news judgments are made in the interest of the communities they serve as journalists.”
Indeed, those very same ethical guidelines for non-profit newsrooms recommend avoiding “accepting donations from government entities, political parties, elected officials or candidates actively seeking public office.”
It’s surprising that Mayor Lee would want to associate himself with the Vanguard given all that improper behavior. But that’s not the main issue.
Rather, the main issue is that by fundraising for the Vanguard, Mayor Lee raises the spectre of “pay for play” – that by raising money for the Vanguard, Mayor Lee will receive favorable press from the Vanguard in return. Now, of course, Mayor Lee might not be expecting that; indeed, knowing him, the thought probably never crossed his mind. However, that’s not the point. Just as with standard understandings of conflict of interest, the point is to avoid even the appearance of impropriety. (Of course, both he and the Vanguard should want to avoid this appearance, as noted already).
To make the problem more vivid, let’s imagine that in the future the Vanguard runs a positive article about a controversial decision from the City Council that Mayor Lee was instrumental in, a favored cause that Mayor Lee supports, or, even more problematically, about Mayor Lee’s re-election campaign (should he decide to run for election to the City Council again – I don’t know if he is planning to). Readers will wonder whether the article genuinely reflects a positive view of Mayor Lee, or whether that article should be better viewed as a “paid advertisement” snuck in under the covers. Again, this worry about appearance is completely independent of whether either side intends to engage in a problematic practice. Both sides should keep their noses so clean that readers don’t even have to ask the question.
Some may recall the flak that Mayor of New York City Bill de Blasio took for fundraising for a nonprofit group backing his political agenda. The linked article notes that “elected officials with ties to similar nonprofits have largely avoided taking such a direct role in soliciting money for those groups.” Frankly, I am surprised that Mayor Lee hasn’t done likewise.
Relatedly, the Institute for Local Government, in its “Everyday Ethics for Local Officials,” recommends that:
In fundraising or similar situations, public officials must take extraordinary care to separate their roles as fundraisers or representatives of a nonprofit and as public officials. They must strive to ensure that people from whom they've solicited a contribution for a charitable cause understand that such a contribution will not favorably influence their decision on a separate matter. Using one's official position to, in essence, force donations to nonprofits violates state and federal laws that prohibit extortion and protect the public's right to officials' honest services.
This raises an additional worry about Mayor Lee’s fundraising from the Vanguard. Will constituents think that he looks more favorably on them if they donate to a cause (the Vanguard) that he supports, or think that he will look disfavorably on them if they do not? Again, Mayor Lee should be avoiding this appearance of impropriety.
I think Mayor Lee is acting improperly by fundraising for the Vanguard, and I call on him to cancel his participation in this event. His appearance there can only harm the City and the public trust.
Addendum: See follow-up to this story here: https://www.davisite.org/2019/04/vanguard-and-city-council-ethical-challenges-persist.html