When Jan Jacobowitz, director of Miami Law's Professional Responsibility and Ethics Program, started an Ethics and Government workshop in 2009, she wanted to create an environment in which students could explore ethics issues affecting government employees and lawyers.
When the workshop's seven students realized that many of the speakers who addressed them had encountered similar ethical dilemmas among government employees – often surrounding the appearance of impropriety – Jacobowitz challenged the students to come up with a solution.
The team members devoted their energies to the task of defining and codifying the appearance of impropriety, a notion that typically has been subject to all sorts of nebulous interpretations. The results of their labors, in concrete language, can now be applied to government workers and other public employees.
"I thought they did phenomenal work," said Robert Meyers, the executive director of the Miami-Dade Commission on Ethics and Public Trust, referring to Jacobowitz and her students. "People have been grappling with this concept for centuries," he added, referring to the slippery nature of impropriety and how to recognize and define it when it exists.
Meyers, one of several speakers Jacobowitz invited to discuss workplace challenges, later proposed the appearance-of-impropriety language as an ethical roadmap for the financial recovery board of Jackson Health Systems, which has undergone significant restructuring because of budget cutbacks. In August, the board adopted the students' language and made it part of the hospital group's bylaws.
"They came up with something that's relatively easy to apply and understand," said Meyers, who acknowledged having to tweak some of the wording so that it could be applied to the Jackson board's needs, but not by much.
Karin Dryer, a Miami Law graduate who took part in the workshop, said that because of Jacobowitz's class, she learned firsthand how important it is to use language effectively and accurately, and she was happy to learn that Meyers was able to make use of the students' work.
"It's really rewarding to know that this is making an impact at Jackson, one of the biggest hospitals in Miami," Dryer said. She explained that she and her classmates had put a lot of time and thought into the guideline. "We didn't know at the time what impact it would have, but we knew that it would be out there for future use."
The appearance-of-impropriety language proposed by Miami Law clearly identifies common phrases such as conflict of interest and breach of public trust, and includes definitions of unethical or illegal actions, such as leveraging a public position for personal interest.
Jacobowitz explained that behavior or actions that create the appearance of impropriety usually fall somewhere in the gray area between legally right and wrong.
"You can tell when something is just not right – it doesn't pass the smell test," Jacobowitz said. But without a clear definition of what constitutes a conflict, "you don't have a way to prosecute that person."
Jacobowitz believes that more people could benefit from having clearly defined appearance-of-impropriety guidelines, and would like to see her workshop's language adopted throughout Florida.
Meyers believes the guidelines adopted by the Jackson board will have a lasting effect. "I think it gives the public a great confidence that the members of the board are free from any ethical conflict," Meyers said, "because they are being held to the highest ethical standard possible."