To Ald. Zach Brandon, the case against Mike Quieto was a slam dunk. While working at the City Clerk's Office this spring, Quieto admittedly signed someone else's name on the campaign finance report for the Teaching Assistants' Association. Nowhere on the report did Quieto indicate he wasn't really Ryan Lipscomb, the group's treasurer, or state that he had Lipscomb's permission to sign his name, as was later maintained.
Brandon filed an ethics complaint against Quieto, who is a member of the Teaching Assistants' Association, alleging that he had done the group a special favor.
"I couldn't call at night and say, 'Hey, can you fill out my liquor license and sign it for me?'" says Brandon, who owns Laundry 101, a downtown bar/laundromat. "That's not a benefit available to the average citizen."
But when the Ethics Board reviewed Brandon's complaint two weeks ago, it focused only on whether Quieto had signed Lipscomb's name while on duty at the Clerk's Office. It ignored the obvious question of forgery.
"The Ethics Board didn't feel that was the heart of the issue," says Brandon, who is bewildered that the board dismissed his complaint against Quieto. "What he did I believe is wrong. I walked out of there shaking my head, not understanding how they couldn't see it was wrong too."
As it turns out, the city's Ethics Board does not often find the behavior of public officials to be wrong. The seven-member body, appointed by the mayor and staffed by the City Attorney's Office, meets only as needed, to hear complaints, issue advisory opinions, and review legislation.
In the past 20 years, there have been only a handful of times where the board alleged misconduct. The most recent case was in 2004, when it recommended that Mike Kohn be removed from the Zoning Board of Appeals for failing to disclose about 20 properties he owned on his statement of interests form.
But more often, the board acts as it did in 1990, when it absolved Sue Bauman of any wrongdoing, even when she clearly had a conflict of interest. Then-Ald. Andy Heidt had filed a complaint against then-Ald. Bauman, who had invested $10,000 in an apartment project owned by Randy Alexander. Bauman then pushed through approval for another Alexander project, which was adjacent to this complex.
Bauman, says Heidt, had "a direct financial interest in the success of the project." He was stunned when the Ethics Board tossed his complaint.
"I was deeply frustrated that something real like that was just so callously dismissed," he says. "And if it had been looked at closely, maybe we would not have had her as mayor." (Bauman was elected mayor in 1997, reelected in 1999 and defeated in the primary in 2003.)
Heidt is also critical of the board's process. "I filed an ethics complaint, went in and pitched it to the Ethics Board, and it was over," he says. "It was surreal."
As Brandon sees it, the Ethics Board is "set up to fail." For one thing, it places sole responsibility for presenting evidence on the complainants.
"You want to talk about a flawed process," he sighs. "You play the role of prosecutor and complainant at the same time, which is unproductive." Brandon says it would be better to have the board hold an initial hearing and then, if it determines there's enough to go forward, appoint a special prosecutor to investigate.
The Ethics Board can recommend action against people - such as having the city seek a fine of up to $500 - but it has no real power of its own. There is no record of anyone ever being fined. In 1995, when the board ruled against Ald. Tim Bruer for failing to disclose property he owned on his statement of interests form, it left Bruer on the ballot, but asked that the city council reprimand him. The council apparently did nothing.
Charles Center, the Ethics Board chair, did not return a call. Ald. Mike Verveer, who has been on the board for years, recused himself from the Quieto case, because he is friends with both Brandon and Quieto.
"I do think there are ways we can be more user-friendly," says Verveer, noting that the board finally posted a complaint form and an explanation of the process on its Web site.
But while Verveer feels the city attorney "should and would provide assistance" to people filing complaints, he hesitates to back Brandon's suggestion that it have its own investigator. "Do we want to act as judge and jury, but also prosecutor?" he asks. "I don't know if that's a wise use of our resources."
Verveer says the Ethics Board hasn't done much over the years because there hasn't been a need for it.
"I don't know that our system is really broke," he says. "As someone who's been around for a dozen years, I just don't see any huge ethics problems in city government."