The probation scandal is about legislators recommending people for jobs. The leadership of the probation department engaged in systematic fraud in order to accommodate legislative recommendations.
It’s worth thinking through several different kind of recommendations and considering which kinds feel OK and which don’t.
Is a legislative recommendation of a job seeker to a public agency OK if . . .
- . . . the legislator knows that the agency will falsify records to place his candidate at the top of the list? No, probably illegal.
- . . . the legislator makes the recommendation in return for a campaign contribution? No, probably illegal.
- . . . the legislator recommends a close relative? No, probably violates conflict of interest rules.
- . . . the legislator knows or should know that the agency will place his candidate at the top of the list, more or less regardless of merit? No, clearly unethical, not so clearly illegal.
- . . . the legislator recommends an active campaign supporter (contributor or volunteer)? Probably OK if the legislator extends the same degree of consideration to other constituents and there is no direct link between the support and the recommendation, but this is hard to keep clean.
- . . . the legislator recommends a constituent who is neither a relative nor a campaign supporter? Certainly OK, but even here, there is always a risk that the recommendation will bear undue weight
In practice, many good candidates will be effectively excluded if going through a legislator is the best way to get a public job. The problems in the probation department were especially egregious, but other agencies are known for patronage. The Turnpike Authority, now dissolved, was known as a patronage haven and generally, the problems may tend to be worst in agencies outside direct gubernatorial supervision. (Those under gubernatorial supervision are at risk of gubernatorial patronage, but much less at risk of legislative patronage.)
There are already laws against fraud, bribery, nepotism and subtler conflicts of interest. The question we will face over the next few months is: would the public be better served if legislators did not engage in job recommendations at all or did so only subject to new limitations?
Imagine a scenario in which legislative recommendations were simply prohibited by rule or law. In practice, this wouldn’t stop legislators from serving their constituents — legislators could still mentor job seekers about their goals, help them to think through options in the public sector, and suggest people to talk to. That’s not such a bad scenario and would certainly put the issue to rest in a health way.
I think the main alternative to an outright prohibition is a disclosure requirement — legislative recommendations should be in writing and filed in a public place like the House Clerk’s office.
My own practice when constituents call about employment issues is to arrange a meeting for them with me and my legislative aide. My aide and I help brainstorm options and possible job listings that should be considered. After some discussion, I reach out to friends that I know (either in the private sector or the public sector or both) and express my hope that they will meet with job-seeker for networking purposes. If there is a prospect of a particular opening, my practice is usually to write a letter or email reciting my level of acquaintance with the candidate and my perceptions. I don’t think I’ve ever crossed any legal or ethical lines in this process, but some more clarity about where the lines are would be helpful.
Interested in people’s comments on where the lines should be.