Public Safety & Justice

When to Say When

Why some public officials in trouble don't step down
by | January 2006
 

Everyone is innocent until proven guilty, but should government officials hold themselves to a standard higher than criminal conviction, and resign simply because they have become a public embarrassment? Or should they hang on to their jobs as long as they legally can?

Lately, a number of them seem to have preferred the latter course. Bill Ceverha, the treasurer of U.S. Representative Tom DeLay's political action committee, has refused to give up his position on the body overseeing the Texas pension board--even though he has been successfully sued for violating campaign law and forced into personal bankruptcy.

Despite being indicted on 21 counts of extortion, New Mexico Treasurer Robert Vigil refused to answer Governor Bill Richardson's call for his resignation until impeachment proceedings were getting underway. In another extortion case, Richard Goyette, the mayor of Chicopee, Massachusetts, refused to step aside prior to the expiration of his term this month, although he had been indicted on charges of accepting illegal campaign contributions.

The most sobering case of all, perhaps, is that of Spokane Mayor Jim West. A investigation by the Spokane Spokesman-Review showed that West had used government computers to troll online for young men, allegedly offering city jobs to entice them into sex. West said he had created an "imaginary person" who lived online.

A private investigator hired by the city council found West had violated state law, but the mayor blamed the newspaper for hounding him and refused to quit. He was ultimately removed from office by a recall vote last month. "It created a sort of low-grade civic migraine over the city for the last six months," says Tom Keefe, an attorney involved in local politics.

Why do public officials stay on board, even after they've given everyone else a headache? They may be innocent, and they deserve every chance to make that case, but often they simply put themselves and their constituents through needless angst, only to be humiliated in the end anyway. In the interim, they cling to office as if every additional day were a divine gift. It's too bad. Establishing culpability is one issue, but there's always more to keeping the public trust than simple legal guilt.

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