Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Bonnie Blackburn

Bonnie Blackburn was known as a pillar of the community. The owner of a small insurance firm, she knew the movers and shakers in town, and wrote policies for most of them. Her likeable personality and political savvy earned her appointment to the county planning commission, where her negotiating skills were responsible for salvaging several controversial land developments, including a messy sale of surplus State land.

Her success was noted by the governor, who appointed her to the California State Historical Resources Commission. During the two years she served as a commissioner, Bonnie gained even more renown as a hard-working and effective representative, leading her family and supporters to draft her for an open seat on the Veritas City Council.

Following her election in November 2001, Bonnie brought new energy to City Hall, tapping her many connections across the state. "People are finally giving Veritas the respect it deserves," said Mayor Michael Sweeney. "Bonnie's got the governor's attention and tons of connections, and that can only mean great things for our city."

But Bonnie's first year in office, however, ended in tumult, as she found herself facing charges from the district attorney's political corruption unit. An anonymous source disclosed that she and her husband had taken several all-expense-paid trips to Las Vegas from a prominent landowner who had a shopping mall project before the city council. While she initially denied taking the trips, Bonnie later admitted she had made a "reporting" mistake, explaining that the trips were from an "old friend who has been an insurance client for ages." She argued that it was a coincidence that he had a project in the pipeline.

The media have been covering the story aggressively, and while her council colleagues and a newspaper editorial have urged her resignation, she insisted on remaining in office pending the results of the district attorney's investigation. The majority of the council had proposed to strip her of her committee appointments until the case was resolved, but the mayor said "She's too important to us on those county committees, and we should keep her in place. She's innocent until proven guilty. We shouldn't throw out the baby with the bath water."

Questions:

1. How do relationships with "old friends" change when you are elected?
2. Should her colleagues on the City Council take away her committee appointed merits?

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This case has been prepared by Judy Nadler, Senior Fellow in Government ethics, as the basis for class discussion rather than to illustrate effective or ineffective handling of a governmental situation.

Copyright © 2004 by the President and Board of Trustees of Santa Clara University. All rights reserved. For permission to reproduce or post this case on a website, or electronic reserve, please contact ethics@scu.edu.


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