The Lies of Enroll Southers

The bottom line is this: President Obama’s nominee to lead the Transportation Security Administration lied to Congress under oath, and Democratic senators who knew he was lying voted to confirm him anyway. Now that his misrepresentation has been discovered and reported, the Administration’s and the Senate’s position is that it doesn’t matter.

It does matter. It is also a significant moment for the Obama Administration and the Democrats. Was all the talk a year ago about creating an ethical culture in Washington just campaign PR and hogwash? It would appear so. If one is creating an ethical culture, lying under oath cannot be brushed aside as a minor matter. Lying under oath gets lawyers disbarred. It gets Presidents impeached. It gets people sent to jail. It matters.

Enroll Southers, a former FBI agent nominated to lead the TSA, sent the Senate a sworn affidavit in October, telling the Senate panel about a damaging incident in his career two decades ago. Southers swore that he asked a San Diego Police Department employee to access confidential criminal records about the boyfriend of his estranged wife. Southers stated in the document that his actions resulted in his being censured by superiors at the FBI. Satisfied that this was an old mistake (though misuse of confidential files for personal purposes is hardly trivial), the Senate voted to confirm him. The very next day, Southers sent another letter, explaining that his account of the event had been “inaccurate.” In fact, he had twice conducted the database searches himself,  and downloaded confidential law enforcement records about his wife’s boyfriend that he then delivered to the police department employee.

He also said that his misstatement of the facts on his first affidavit was inadvertent. This was another lie. That it was a lie is proven by the White House’s statement attempting to defend Southers. A spokesman said that “Southers has never tried to hide this incident, and has expressed that these were errors he made in judgment that he deeply regretted and an error that he made in an account of events that happened over 20 years ago.”  That’s right; when he was first approached by the Obama administration and had to fill out its epic ethics questionnaire laying out anything in his past that might disqualify him and embarrass the administration, this was the one problem, and he didn’t “try to hide it”—he admitted it on the form. And yet, somehow, he forgot what happened in the incident when he swore an affidavit to the Senate!  No, that makes no sense, does it. He must have mis-stated what happened on the White House questionnaire! Wait, no—that would mean he did try to hide the incident. President Obama would never nominate someone who would lie to him, would he?  Or do we believe that Southers only remembered what really happened the day after his nomination had been approved? What a coincidence!


Southers lied under oath. This is Roland Burris all over again, swearing that no, he had never been in touch with Blogojevich about the Illinois Senate appointment, and then, after being seated, suddenly recalling that, now that you mention it, he had offered to raise some money for Blogo if he got the job. Yet the reaction of Democratic Senators, and some Republicans as well, is that Southers’ “mistake” isn’t important because Southers is “the right man for the job.”

In an ethical culture, someone who lies under oath is by definition never the right person for any job. A culture that knowingly places liars in places of great responsibility has made a statement that transforms the system: ethics doesn’t matter if you are important enough. The Obama Administration, which came to office proclaiming that it would hold itself to the “highest ethical standards” (just as the Bush Administration had announced eight years earlier), began choosing political expediency over ethics almost immediately, nominating as its choice to fix the economic mess a man who had willfully ducked his taxes. Then Obama’s “no lobbyists” rule was amended by a series of “waivers” changing it to “no lobbyists unless they are the people we want to appoint.” As for Congress, the same non-rule applied, as it has for decades regardless of party control. For example, some innocents would find it unseemly to have a serial tax scofflaw heading up the Ways and Means Committee, which writes tax policy, for example. But Charley Rangel is “the right man for the job.”

Given special urgency by the “underwear bomber,” the selection of the TSA position will remove even the illusion that being untrustworthy—and lying under oath about anything is proof of untrustworthiness—is a bar to holding high government posts. Support for Southers comes with its own rationalization, naturally: Senators are arguing that the fact one can’t be trusted to tell the truth on an affidavit is irrelevant to running a tight TSA. That logic would have argued for the confirmation of Bernie Kerik, Bush’s choice to succeed Tom Ridge as Secretary of Homeland Security, wouldn’t it? After all, what do insider trading, sexual harassment, misuse of police personnel and property for personal benefit, violations of ethics restrictions on gifts,  ties to organized crime, and failure to comply with ethics rules regarding gifts have to do with keeping us safe from terrorists?

“Highest standards” means highest standards, and an Administration that is serious about high ethical standards will withdraw the nomination of a candidate who lies under oath, and then lies about lying. A Senate that cares about ethical standards won’t confirm him. The White House isn’t going to withdraw the nomination of Enroll Southers, however, and the Senate won’t reject him.

That will tell us all we need to know about what the ethical standards are in Washington.

2 thoughts on “The Lies of Enroll Southers

  1. I think you’re too hard on Southers. As someone who has erroneously filled out financial disclosure forms and has given a sworn deposition that included mis-remembered information, I’m reluctant to judge that Southers lied and more inclined than you to accept that he misremembered parts of the incident.

    I’m impressed that he’s defended by Senators Collins and Lieberman–people who are definitely not apologists for the Administration.

    I hated the Administration defenses of Geithner, and Daschle, but I think I’d go along with then–unenthusiastically–on Southers.

  2. Pingback: Enroll Southers: Right Result, Wrong Reason « Ethics Alarms

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