While serving as mayor of Kansas City, I was investigated by several entities, including the Missouri Ethics Commission, for allegedly using city staff and property to campaign for a light rail initiative that was on the ballot. I was eventually exonerated, but only after a great deal of bad press and time spent by my staff and me supplying documents, answering interrogatories and being interviewed by various investigators.
In my previous work as a government auditor, I had frequently dealt with scandal and impropriety, but I had never envisioned myself as the star of the show. This was a new and sobering experience, and I came away from it shocked at my former naïveté. Now, when I see media reports of apparent ethical lapses involving public officials, I tend to group them into three broad categories.
First, real corruption occurs when a public official acts in such a way as to significantly thwart the public purpose for which he or she was elected. No one would dispute that taking a bribe is real corruption. Or paying one, as a Kentucky state House member has been accused of doing in an alleged effort to get a state inspector to ignore environmental violations at the legislator’s coal mines.
The second category involves violations of propriety and decency. These are less serious ethical breaches than true corruption, but ones that, when they come to light, can be counted on to produce public outrage. The chicanery involving patient waiting lists at the Department of Veterans Affairs falls into this category.
Finally, there are political differences being treated as crimes, in which political actors use investigations and occasionally indictments to harass their opponents. An example of this is the Massachusetts Democratic Party’s recent request that the state ethics commission investigate a Republican state Senate candidate because a legal document she filed inadvertently omitted her ties to the state chamber of commerce.
I see a trend, accelerating over the last couple of decades, in which the “unethical” label is being applied to the two latter, lesser categories. This has two pernicious effects. It dilutes our focus on real corruption, which continues unabated, and it tends to corrode public perception of all public officials.
Fortunately, there is help for officials who want to improve their chances of staying out of serious ethical trouble. One excellent source of such help is the State Legislative Leaders Foundation, a nonpartisan, independent national organization. Elected officials need concrete, practical advice from experts on ethical leadership, and that’s what participants in the foundation’s ethics training programs say they get.
My own experiences have made me far more sympathetic to the ethical situations in which today’s public officials find themselves. Programs like these, which go beyond simple exhortations to go forth and sin no more, not only benefit the participants but the broader public as well. Certainly we could all use a little less bad news.