Monday, November 23, 2015

High Crimes And Misdemeanors

A popular first-day-of-class pop quiz in Ethics 101 is:
Suppose you walk into a room, turn on the light and find money, not yours, lying on a table. What would an ethical person do with the money?
Well, the correct answer which should be obvious is "nothing." It's not yours so if you take it you are a thief. It doesn't matter how long you keep it or what you intend to do with it. Not find the owner. Not donate it to charity. And it doesn't matter if it is a penny or a pound.

Look at how much difference a penny makes.

Another form of ethics dominates the business world. Salesman ethics:
A salesman makes a call on a prospect in Chicago and while walking from his hotel a gust blows his favorite fedora into Lake Michigan. Back at the office he submits his expense report duly noting the line item for a replacement hat. Corporate bean counters refuse payment for the hat. What does the salesman do? After the next trip he submits expenses, complete with receipts and with a handwritten note at the top: "find the hat."
You will not find any group of individuals more self-aligned or more money motivated than salesmen. Except maybe politicians.

And that IS where the fun starts. Politicians are inherently salesmen--selling themselves to voters and more importantly to Big Buck Donors. So which rules of ethics should apply and which are actually practiced?

Lucky for us, DeKalb County has been putting on a clinic.

When you are an elected official or member of their staff and thereby a public facing projection of that official the law holds you to the standard of classical ethics often touted as the highest of ethical standards. The logic is that elected officials are charged with the public's trust and violating that trust, penny or a pound, is a high crime.

Our local DA recently avoided a teaching moment to make this very point and instead accepted a plea bargain that some have deemed a betrayal of the public trust. There were probably several considerations. There is an upcoming election and these matters may seem, to him, trivial in comparison. There is also the matter of Bowers muddying the waters suggesting a larceny model should apply to government malfeasance wherein theft below a certain, arbitrary amount is considered petty and above which it is felonious.

Look at how much difference a penny makes.

Doing that which you know better than to do is a good working definition of practical political ethics.

But it IS getting better isn't is? We've commissioned investigative reports, incomplete, but they are revealing. And we've changed some of the faces so things must be better, mustn't they?

Well, Snow White blew in on promises of transparency, integrity and cleaning house. Yet she retained her deposed and now jailed predecessor's Chief of Staff removing him not because of P-Card purchases of household pet paraphernalia serving no public benefit but because a verbal altercation created untenable political liability. Quintessential political ethics. And we can expect nothing else from any of the others.

After all the indictments, plea agreements, prison time, probation and punitive public service what do we know that we did not before? We knew politics, particularly in DeKalb was rotten to the core, remains rotten to the core but now we know that as we look to the future we can only expect more of the same.