Mayor John Timbrook had recently been elected in a close but remarkably civil election. Each candidate had agreed to run a clean campaign, and each had kept his promise. Since taking office, John had made a smooth transition to his new position and was getting along well with most members of the city council. So when the city Ethics Commission published a report citing John for several election code violations, it created a minor stir at City Hall and in the local media.
The report alleged that John had failed to file several of his direct mailings and radio commercials with the Elections Board, and that he had accepted several contributions from individuals in excess of the $500 legal limit. John immediately began his own investigation into his campaign’s operations, and to his surprise, found that most of the allegations were true. An intern had apparently forgotten to file his campaign materials, even though Susan Trager, his campaign manager and now chief-of-staff, had sent the intern an e-mail asking him to do so.
But the fundraising issue wasn’t as clear. It seemed that the contributions in question had in fact come from businesses, but for some reason, the checks were signed from the business owners’ personal accounts. John was disappointed that Susan and his finance director hadn’t caught the problem. At the same time, he felt that the Commission was splitting hairs and that he hadn’t done anything wrong.
Confiding in Susan, John said, “I’ll pay the fine for the filing problems, but I want to fight this contribution issue. We weren’t really in violation, and even if we were, it wasn’t really my fault. I’ll take them to court if I have to.” Susan took a different approach, arguing, “Just pay the fine and don’t make a big deal out of it. This will go away if you get it over with, but if you fight it, the story will go on forever.”
John was frustrated. He knew that he might win if he disputed the allegations, but he worried about how the process would affect the public’s confidence in him. On the other hand, if he conceded that he had broken the law, he would lose public trust as well.
Should John pay the fine for the contribution issue or dispute the allegation?
If John didn’t know about the fundraising issues, is he still responsible for them?
Roey Rahmil was a 2006-07 Hackworth Fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.