Ethics train wrecks, and readers of Ethics Alarms and the Ethics Scoreboard know, are controversies of escalating publicity and complexity in which so many participants engage in bad decisions and unethical conduct that it is difficult to extract any lessons or conclusions from the chaos and rubble.
“The Tale of Al Gore and the Masseuse” began last week as an inexplicably late revelation of a 2006 accusation of alleged sexual assault by Gore on a woman in his Portland hotel room. Initially, it was only unfair and unsubstantiated fodder for Gore’s enemies in the media to ridicule him and assail his character with innuendo. With the revelation, however, that the Portland police decided to re-open an investigation of the matter and the department’s admission of why that the masseuse’s complaint did not warrant a charge when it was finally made in January 2009, the incident can be officially upgraded (downgraded?) to the Ethics Train Wreck status.
The press reports that although police policy requires investigators to interview potential corroborating witnesses and anyone accused as well as consult with prosecutors, the Portland police admit that this was not done in 2009. In this case, officers interviewed Molly Hagerty, the masseuse, acquired an extremely detailed a 53-page account, and then dropped the case, concluding that there was “insufficient evidence” without any additional investigation or interviews, and without questioning Gore. In other words, there was insufficient evidence because the police, violating their own procedures, didn’t look for any.
It makes no difference whether Gore in fact did anything wrong, or whether, instead, his accuser is a vengeful shakedown artist looking to cause Al trouble because he gave her a lousy tip. What the Portland police did in 2006 was to use an elitist and undemocratic system of law enforcement in which different standards are applied to the rich, well-connected, famous and powerful. There can be no free and just society if political elites are allowed to engage in conduct that will lead to prosecution and punishment for ordinary citizens: this violated the principle of equal justice under the law. We all know this happens too often in police departments all over the nation, as well as in the U.S. Justice Department, but that does not make what occurred in Portland any less alarming. This was a breach of duty by the police that goes to the core of why so many Americans distrust their own government. Had it not been for a National Enquirer story, the police whitewash on behalf of Al Gore would have never come to light.
Molly Hagarty, meanwhile, is a prime player in the train wreck too. She cancelled interview appointments with the police after the incident in 2006, and did not officially make her complaint until 2009. Why? The Associated Press says:
“…After the alleged incident, [Hagarty] said she was dissuaded from contacting the police by liberal friends of hers, whom she refers to as “The Birkenstock Tribe,” and of which she counts herself a member. “It’s like being the ultimate traitor,” [Hagarty] said. One friend “was basically asking me to just suck it up, otherwise the world’s going to be destroyed from global warming,” she said.”
I see. Molly Hagarty, persuaded by her friends, also endorsed an undemocratic and elitist system, whereby those who have important causes or talents are allowed to behave illegally, unethically, or in violation of their publicly endorsed values, because they’re work is too vital to jeopardize. There is some ironic justice in her complaint being discarded by the police for a similar reason. This is a dangerous and foolish—if seductive—rationalization for unethical conduct that “The Birkenstock Tribe” was pushing, one that is at the core of much of the political, organizational and institutional corruption that saps America’s resources and spirit. As long as a powerful individual is doing work that is perceived as critical, he can do no wrong, including degrading, objectifying, abusing and assaulting a woman. All that fuss about insisting that men respect women out the window, in favor of the 19th Century logic that dominating women was a man’s privilege for being so productive and commanding.
With ethics dunces like the Portland Police, Molly and “The Birkenstock Group,” the other cars in the train wreck seem relatively minor:
- The National Enquirer, which admits that it didn’t give Gore the basic journalistic courtesy of being able to respond to the allegations out of concern that the former vice president would issue a statement causing The Enquirer to lose the exclusive in the two days before it reached newsstands. Fairness, in other words, doesn’t stand a chance in competition with profits—but this is The Enquirer, after all. We expect unethical journalism, and we usually get it.
- The conservative media, which gleefully treated Hagarty’s 53-page complaint like gospel, and read every salacious detail as if Al Gore has been found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.
The one person who has not, to our knowledge, done anything unethical is Al Gore. It may yet turn out that his denials now are lies, and that his behavior that night in 2006 was indeed that of “a crazed sex poodle.” For now, however, he is the primary casualty of an Ethics Train Wreck.