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Her Honor

Judy Nadler, senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, looks at ethical dilemmas, scandals, and best practices in government.

The following postings have been filtered by category Public Trust. clear filter
  •  The Slippery Slope In Politics

    Wednesday, Jul. 27, 2011

    I spoke with a reporter recently who was writing about gifts elected officials were taking but not disclosing. More troubling, many of the officeholders said they “couldn’t remember” whether or not they had gone to the Super Bowl courtesy of a major business interest. How could this be?

    It’s difficult to explain the “selective memory” excuse, since tickets to major sporting events, Broadway shows, and golf excursions at exclusive country clubs are not only memorable, but out of the reach of most of the public. However, there is is a theory about how officeholders get themselves into trouble: they step onto the “slippery slope.”

    The simplest definition in the dictionary for this phenomenon is “dangerous situation.” In politics, the slippery slope generally refers to an ethical decision that starts with no consequences, but subsequent decisions make it more difficult to discern right from wrong. Without knowing it, the individual has “crossed the line” and done something unethical. The slope is especially slippery when gifts or special privileges are involved.

    A common excuse for unethical behavior is “everyone else is doing it.” Another way to explain this behavior is to claim, “it’s not that bad.” This always leaves me wondering what would be bad? My personal favorite is the officeholder who is insulted by an ethics complaint, protesting, “I cannot be bought off by…(a round of golf, playoff tickets--you fill in the blank).

    Not all the blame rests with the public officials. After all, they are just accepting a gift or benefit that has been offered by a lobbyist, special interest group, or grateful citizen.

    It may not be easy to resist to these temptations, but nobody ever said being in public life would be easy.

  •  Political Junket Or Just Part Of The Job?

    Tuesday, Jul. 26, 2011

    Politicians who travel to exotic places “on business” are apt to draw negative attention, but in New York, the travel drew a $20,000 fine.

    Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz took several overseas trips for official city business, but because he brought his wife the Conflicts of Interest Board found him guilty of an ethical violation. The fact that wife Jamie accompanied him was deemed to be “accepting travel expenses for his wife for each trip, using his position as a public servant for private or personal advantage. Simply put, his wife was able to travel with him abroad –for free.”

    The trips in question were to Turkey (twice) and to the Netherlands. Markowitz argues neither he nor his wife received any personal benefit from the trips, saying, “when they bring you over it’s not vacation –they make you work.”

    In making its decision, the board noted Mrs. Markowitz is not an official staff member, quoting a New York City Charter provision that states “no public servant shall use or attempt to use his or her position as a public servant to obtain any financial gain, contract, license, privilege or other private or personal advantage, direct or indirect, for the public servant or any person or firm associated with the public servant.”

    Although he will pay the fine, Markowitz maintains he did nothing wrong, and called the ruling a “terrible decision.”

    Reading the comments posted to the New York Times article show opposing reactions to this story. Several readers felt Markowitz was a hard-working public servant, and expressed support for “the option of bringing a spouse on international travel, particularly if it’s for more than a few days.”

    The majority of the reactions were negative: “another politician who thinks that ethics laws apply to everybody but him.” A common thread was expressed by one reader who wrote “Is he serving his constituents in any way by taking these contrived missions of good will, which in essence are nothing more than ‘vacations?’ These kind of junkets are what sour people on politicians.”

    What do you think? Is travel a perk or part of the job? Should a spouse or companion be allowed a “free ride” or be made to pay for the trip and accompanying expenses? Let me know by posting a comment here.

  •  Attempt To Cut Ethics Budget Sends Wrong Message

    Friday, Jul. 22, 2011

    He insists it wasn’t an act of retaliation, but the congressman who proposed a 40% cut in the budget of the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE) was a target of an ethics investigation last year.

    Rep. Melvin Watt of North Carolina said he supported the amendment because “the work by the ethics office is at times abusive, causing unnecessary embarrassment of House members.” Rep. Steve King of Iowa went even further with his criticism, accusing the ethics office of violating “Roman law, English common law, and the decency of the House.”

    The vote was 102-302, and members were forced to go on the record rather than voting by voice. Acknowledging there may be some problems with the OCE, one congressman said the cuts were not the answer. Rep. Michael E. Capuano of Massachusetts called the cuts “draconian punishment” that look like an attempt to say “We’re the boss; you’re not.”

    The ethics office can investigate but not punish House members, and has looked into charges levied against both parties. While Mr. Watt’s case was referred to the committee, no charges were ever filed against him.

    Legislation seeking to silence ethical checks and balances only serves to add to the perception that all politicians are crooks. Whether it is the OCE or a local ethics commission doing the work, it’s good to remember the words of Sophocles: “Don’t kill the messenger.”

  •  Restoring Public Trust In Detroit

    Monday, Nov. 8, 2010

    I am generally an optimist, but I will admit that when Detroit was hit with multiple scandals over the past few years, I couldn't imagine how the city would overcome the culture of corruption.

    My faith is somewhat restored, now that the Detroit Charter Revision Commission  has met in the first of a series of daylong meetings. The group of 100 or so residents met to "help the panel determine how the city's government and its functions will be structured under the new charter."

    In a large group, then in smaller discussion groups, the participants focused on the theme "Structure, Relationships and Alllocation of Power Between Government Officials."

    The Charter Commission was elected last November, and has held 25 meetings to date. The goal of the commission is to draft a final city charter  to be put on the ballot in May 2012.

    City council districts, ethics, and appointments to the ethics board are among the speciics that will be written into the document.

    The commission's chair said she wasn't discouraged by the number of people who attended. I would re-phrase that to say I was encouraged with the turnout, and look forward to following the progress of the commission over the coming months.

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