When Is a Postscript a Threat?
The appearance of impropriety
Hana Callaghan directs the Government Ethics Program at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California. The opinions expressed are her own.
Recently Congressman Rodney Frelinghuysen wrote a fundraising letter to a donor who happened to sit on the board of a local bank. Writing on campaign letterhead, the Congressman said, “There are organized forces – both national and local – who are already hard at work to put a stop to an agenda of limited government, economic growth, stronger national security.” A handwritten note at the bottom of the letter said, “P.S. One of the ringleaders works in your bank!” A copy of a news article about the referenced bank employee was attached to the letter.
The employee, Senior Vice President and Assistant General Counsel Saily Avelenda, was asked for an explanation by her boss as to her political activities. Even though the Bank has a policy to promote civic engagement among its employees, Avelenda felt her position was threatened because she belonged to a group that was demanding that the Congressman hold in person town hall meetings to hear their concerns. She said, “I thought my Congressman put [the bank] in a situation, and me in a really bad situation as the constituent, and used his name, used his position and used his stationery to try to punish me.” Avelenda has since resigned.
On May 16 the Campaign for Accountability filed a complaint against Frelinghuysen with the Office of Congressional Ethics.
This is not the usual government ethics case where a public official is charged with using public resources for political gain—the letter was sent by the campaign, on campaign—not congressional-- letterhead. Nevertheless, the Congressman may yet be found to have violated his ethical responsibilities. Public officials have an ethical responsibility to act in a fair and impartial manner toward all of their constituents. They have a duty of loyalty to put the public good before personal political pursuits, and they have a duty to preserve trust in government by avoiding the appearance of impropriety.
It appears that the Congressman may have let his bias toward this particular constituent cause him to single her out for punishment thus breaching his duty of impartiality. By possibly treading on her First Amendment rights to engage in lawful assembly and political speech, he may have breached his duty to uphold the Constitution of the United States. Finally his actions, if not actually corrupt, could give cause for the public to speculate whether he was signaling to a supporter in a highly regulated industry that it would be advantageous for him to punish his political adversary.
It is possible that the hand-written note will be determined to be an innocent scribble written to a friend in a fit of pique. The lesson learned from this however should be that words and actions by public officials matter. We need our government leaders to be less ruled by impulse and more governed by thoughtful reflection on their ethical responsibilities before they give voice to thought.