Establishing the Modern Era of Ethics Reform

By on February 20th, 2012

Cover Story

Establishing the Modern Era
of Ethics Reform


by Craig Ruff
February 21, 2012

Governor William Milliken transformed how public officials conduct the public’s business.
At the time Mr. Milliken moved up to the governorship in 1969, there was no

  • Reporting of campaign money received or spent
  • Lid on corporate gifts to campaigns
  • Limit on how much a group or individual could give to a politician
  • Limit on lobbyists’ personal gifts to politicians
  • Requirement that meetings of public bodies be held openly
  • Reporting of lobbying activity
  • Conflict of interest disclosure by public officials
  • Easy access to public records.

When he left office at the end of 1982, all were embodied in law.
A great swath of the public may not have craved ethics reform (“inside baseball” stuff), but the news media did, and so did Mr. Milliken and an enthusiastic band of reform-minded state legislators.
In 1973 and 1974, the exposure of crimes by the Nixon administration appalled the public and politicians alike. Public trust in government plummeted. While there were laws on the books that Nixon and aides violated, and for which some were convicted and punished, the Watergate crisis prompted people, like Mr. Milliken, to look at the potential for misbehavior in other areas. More than simply look, they set in law prohibitions on such activity, and through transparency gave people a look at the inside operations of campaign funding and spending as well as public policy making.
He used the crisis in confidence to restore the public’s trust in government through broad ethics reforms.
Mr. Milliken relayed to me, a policy assistant, his conversations with John Gardner, founder and president of Common Cause and President Lyndon Johnson’s secretary for Health, Education and Welfare. Mr. Milliken asked me to work with Gardner, key legislators, and others to craft and pass laws to restore the public’s trust in government. “Yes, sir,” I said.
We had a relatively small but very effective band of reformers in the state legislature. They were brazen. Young Democrats like Dave Hollister, Perry Bullard, and Lynn Jondahl (they and others were assigned the moniker the “kiddie caucus”) and young Republicans like Michael Dively pushed the state House of Representatives. In the state Senate, big reforms appealed to Republican Bill Ballenger and Democrat Pat McCollough, who jointly headed up a special committee on ethics.
Mr. Milliken stayed on message from 1973-75. He prodded. The pushback from legislators accustomed to things as they were ran the gamut from disinterest to apoplexy. Minor frets became major things. One senator assured me of his vote only if we exempted from public disclosure contributors to his wiener roasts: “That’s where I get my money.” (Man, is he underfunded, I thought.)
We decided to run an omnibus ethics bill. We’d tackle limits on political contributions and expenditures, disclosure of all campaign money, conflicts of interests, lobbying reporting, and public financing of gubernatorial campaigns in a single bill. It was as Churchill described Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, “a brilliant strategy marred only by failure.” Our bill did not make it through the process.
It was tough to stand against ethics reforms, and Mr. Milliken wore down the opposition. Re-elected in 1974, he brought to bear new political capital. This time the state legislature adopted the big ethics bill.
In 1976 the Michigan Supreme Court overturned the public act on the basis that we tackled too many topics in one bill. The same year, the U.S. Supreme Court decided that a state could not limit candidates’ and independent committees’ spending, killing one element of the legislation.
Mr. Milliken did not give up. He told his legal counsel, Peter Ellsworth, to work with legislators to separate the ethics legislation into multiple bills. They did so. The legislature re-enacted the ethics bills, and Mr. Milliken signed them into law.
A couple of years later, Mr. Milliken and Ellsworth worked with legislators on two other matters. Mr. Milliken supported the opening of meetings of public bodies to the public and the freedom of people to inspect public files. Democratic House members, notably Perry Bullard and Dave Hollister, led the charge. Together, these legislators and Mr. Milliken won enactment of today’s Open Meetings and Freedom of Information acts.
Let me commend George Weeks. He had been a pillar in political reporting before becoming Mr. Milliken’s press secretary. He then became our chief of staff. To George, nothing was as crucial to a democracy as openness. He pressed for the broadest public access to information and records. I was and remain immensely proud of George for pushing us every day toward ever greater disclosure.
Over three years, Michigan enacted the most dramatic and ambitious political reforms since the Progressive Era.
Mr. Milliken was and remains zero-tolerant of violations of the public’s trust. You arm the media (dwindling but not yet impotent) and public with information and you narrow the range and risk of corruption and abuse of office.
To some, laws and moral codes are suggestions. Principle-free people, sadly, will ignore rules. In private or public lives. All that we can hope for is that through shining a bright light on behavior we can dissuade some people from abusing the public trust, and through disclosure we can catch and prosecute culprits.
Throughout its history, Michigan has been very fortunate to be led by governors and state legislators with high scruples. They surely all didn’t go to Heaven, but few saw jail time. The Milliken commitment to ethics was and is a natural extension of his love of history and the state.
Nobody among my life’s connections has ever exhibited a more scrupulous personal behavior than Mr. Milliken. Legendary, as he should be, for his championship of the environment, cities, and other things, he remains for me an exemplar of the highest political ethics.
He was a steely, get-the-job-done governor. Using keen knowledge of the legislative process and ever ready to use his bully pulpit, he dragged a less-than-enthusiastic legislature to accept certain poisons in exchange for a restoration of public trust in government. Having a heart and mind in the right place is necessary, but not sufficient.
Michiganians should be deeply grateful that the right person was in the right place at a dreadful time and built a body of laws to let the sun shine in.
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Craig Ruff is, among many things, a senior policy fellow and former president of Lansing-based Public Sector Consultants. He served as a policy advisor to Gov. Milliken and later as chief of staff to Lt. Gov. William Brickley.

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John K. Harrison
John K. Harrison

Ah, yes, Carig. Thinks well, writes well, and actually remembers well. And a good friend. He should perhaps calm down a bit as a reformer. Reform was needed then. Some reform now. But reform isn’t a way of life. There are folks around nowadays who need a little calming down on the government front so they have time to do a little planning. There are actually folks outside of government who make up the economy of Michigan.

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