The key word, in ethics, in government, in all relationships that matter, is trust. Trust is the connective tissue that holds societies together: it can be strengthened by demonstrations of ethical values like integrity, loyalty, honesty, civility, responsibility, competence, and courage, and weakened by proof of unethical traits like fecklessness, dishonesty, lack of independent judgment, selfishness, lack of diligence, greed and cowardice. For decades, the American public’s trust in its elected representatives and governmental institutions—and other critical institutions like the news media and the legal system—has been in steep decline. This is not because of some inexplicable public fad or the poisoning of public perceptions by an unholy alliance of the pop culture and Fox news. The decline in trust has occurred because a significant proportion of America’s elected leaders have not been trustworthy, and the reason this has been true is that American voters have thus far refused to make proof of ethical values their main priority in electing them. Because politicians know this, they feel empowered to engage in corruption, self-enrichment and deception in the confidence that partisan supporters will vote for them anyway, as long as they mouth the same policy positions and deliver their quota of pork, earmarks, and government contracts.
This, of course, does not benefit of country in the long run, but weakens it. It also creates an increasingly arrogant and power-obsessed political class to which ethical values are like Halloween costumes, donned at regular intervals to disguise who they really are. The core principles of the democratic process do not matter to many of these people, and they don’t see why they should matter: witness House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s refusal to debate her opponent because she knows she can win easily without giving her constituents a fair chance to compare the competing candidates. For most voters, over all, this approach still works, at least at the polls, so obviously untrustworthy officials continue to be elected, and by their conduct continue to destroy public trust.
I was discussing this issue at recent seminar in regard to the candidacy of Richard Blumenthal, the Connecticut Attorney General who is running for the state’s U.S. Senate seat. Blumenthal, to be blunt, is a proven liar and fraud on a grand scale. He intentionally misled the public for years about his military record, and assumed the false mantle of a combat veteran. When his deception was uncovered, he refused to be accountable, absurdly casting the repeated lies about his own past as mere slips of the tongue. Yet a Connecticut citizen at my table proclaimed that he “didn’t care;” that Blumenthal’s policies were what mattered, not his ethics. This is an astoundingly illogical mindset, but a common one. Power tends to tempt and corrupt individuals who have scruples and integrity: what is it likely to produce with an elected official that has neither integrity nor scruples to begin with? If we elect representatives who are untrustworthy, we are likely to be betrayed sooner or later, one way or the other. Worse, we send the message to future candidates, both in and out of office, that integrity and honesty don’t matter to voters, like my Connecticut friend. We thus get more untrustworthy candidates, more untrustworthy representatives, and constantly declining public trust in government on all levels.
Public trust cannot keep declining indefinitely, you know. Eventually, a government that cannot be trusted will collapse.
Just as addressing America’s fiscal crisis will take hard measures and sacrifice, addressing its equally dangerous crisis in trust requires sacrifice too. It will require voters to establish the principle that being “effective,” experienced or having the “right” policy positions will not be enough to justify electing or re-electing individuals who are demonstrably trustworthy. Voters must establish untrustworthiness as absolutely disqualifying a candidate for election to public office. Any ethical, honest candidate with integrity must be seen as per se preferable to a corrupt, dishonest or unethical candidate, regardless of past achievements or policy views.
To this end, Ethics Alarms presents its list of the least trustworthy candidates for national office in the upcoming election. For reasons of space and convenience, it is limited to twenty members, which is obviously and sadly far too few: in the more than 500 races for Congress, the U.S. Senate and governorships nation-wide, the number of untrustworthy candidates undoubtedly numbers in the hundreds. This list is illustrative, not inclusive, but it is my assessment of the worst of the worst.
What makes a candidate so untrustworthy that he or she deserves to be rejected no matter who the opposition may be? This is what I like to call the “Lawn Chair Principle,” when electing a lawn chair is preferable to electing the human alternative. Let’s begin with what doesn’t justify determining that a candidate is necessarily untrustworthy:
- Isolated verbal gaffes that are plausibly innocent mistakes. Example: Rep. Hank Johnson’s bizarre suggestion during a hearing that the island of Guam might “tip over.”
- Unsubstantiated accusations or suppositions. Example: Sen. Harry Reid’s enhanced personal finances since he became a U.S. Senator, which his opponent has demanded that he explain.
- Embarrassing private photos that date before a candidate was a public figure and that show nothing illegal or seriously unethical. Example: Virginia congressional candidate Krystal Ball’s Christmas party photos.
- Any conduct, statement or opinion that was not a crime or that did not cause genuine harm occurring in college or more than two decades ago. Example: Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul’s “Aqua Buddha” prank.
- Reversals in policy positions or actions inconsistent with campaign promises that can reasonable be attributed to changed circumstances, new perspective, justifiable political strategy, or a good faith change in opinion.
- Mere associations or friendships with individuals who have shady or questionable reputations: Example: President Obama’s association with William Ayers.
- Almost anything said in a private conversation that has been recorded or overheard, other than criminal conspiracies, admissions of corruption. Example: California gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown’s aide’s comment in a private phone conversation referring to challenger Christine Whitman as a “whore.”
- Any inappropriate action or comment for which the candidate apologizes freely, spontaneously, credibly and sincerely. Example: Democratic Congressman Ed Perlmutter slapped away his opponent’s hand in a televised debate, and apologized on the spot.
- Representations of unpopular or unsavory clients in a candidate’s legal career. Example: New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s past representation of tobacco companies.
- Misconduct by the candidate’s family members. Example: Meg Whitman’s sons.
What kind of conduct does show that a candidate is too untrustworthy to elect? The Ethics Alarms “Untrustworthy Twenty” should make that pretty clear. Here they are, in no particular order, with the ethics deficits that show untrustworthiness accompanying each candidate:
1. Alvin Greene (D., U.S. Senate, S.C.): We like to say that anyone can run for office in America, but not everyone should. If someone wished to run for office with no qualifications whatsoever, like Greene, he is ethically obligated to give voters some legitimate, articulate, candid information about who he is, what he stands for, and why he deserves their trust, Greene has refused to do this, or is unable to. His few media interviews have shown no evidence that he has studied the issues or prepared for the race, never mind actually winning the election. On top of that, he is running for Congress while facing a pornography misdemeanor charge. We should not trust individuals to make the laws when they can’t avoid breaking them. Untrustworthiness Factors: incompetence, failure of diligence, dishonesty, lack of integrity, lack of candor, disrespect for the system
2. Christine O’Donnell (GOP, U.S. Senate, Delaware): O’Donnell combines Greene’s lack of qualifications with her own lack of candor and honesty. It seems clear that she has misused campaign funds, and has repeatedly lied about her educational background and credentials. She has made sweeping comments about the primacy of the Constitution, and yet has not invested the time and diligent study necessary to know and understand the document at the center of her campaign. Untrustworthiness Factors: Incompetence, failure of diligence, dishonesty, lack of integrity, lack of candor, disrespect for the system.
3. Richard Blumenthal (D., U.S. Senate, Connecticut): His repeated lies, the especially revolting nature of his lies, plus his refusal to admit that they were lies, should disqualify him for office. Indeed, they should have disqualified him for his current post as State Attorney General. Untrustworthiness Factors: dishonesty, lack of integrity, lack of candor, lack of accountability, hypocrisy.
4. Rep. Joe Wilson (R., House, S.C.): Shouting “You lie!” during a presidential address to Congress would not show Wilson to be unworthy of trust if it had been a momentary failure of composure and he had immediately apologized for it. Instead, he issued a mandatory and qualified apology, and used his disrespect and incivility to raise campaign funds. America has had many politically-charged policy debates and many controversial presidents, but no Congressman has ever shown so little respect for the head of our government, or such contempt for the dignity and traditions of the institution of Congress. Untrustworthiness Factors: disrespect, incivility, lack of accountability, irresponsibility, unfairness, poor citizenship.
5. Rep. Alan Grayson, (D,. House, Fla.): Grayson is the most uncivil member of Congress, and proud of it. This stems from his inherently unethical and reckless “the ends justify the means’ philosophy of governing,” which also led him to attack his election opponent with a despicable ad that was cruel, unfair, and an outright lie. He is an extreme advocate of Nixon and Tom DeLay-style combat ethics: whatever works is “right.” Such leaders can never be trusted; indeed, they are dangerous. Untrustworthiness Factors: disrespect, incivility, irresponsibility, unfairness, dishonesty.
6. Mark Kirk, (R., House, Ill.): Another serial liar, who has misrepresented his military honors and work history to the extent that would justly get him fired from most executive positions. Untrustworthiness Factors: dishonesty, lack of integrity.
7. Rep. Charles Rangel, (D.,House, NY.): Rangel epitomizes the Congressman who will be elected despite clear evidence of corruption. It is beyond dispute that he has accepted financial favors, abused his power and influence for personal gain, and failed to pay taxes, despite chairing the House Ways and Means Committee. Because of his prominence and seniority, he is also a role model and Congressional leader, whose corrupt and unethical conduct does special damage, corrupting the institution and other members by making wrongful acts appear routine and excusable. Untrustworthiness Factors: conflicts of interest, dishonesty, lack of integrity, abuse of power, irresponsibility, lack of accountability
8. Gov. Charlie Crist, (I., U.S. Senate, Fla.): A former conservative Republican who was beaten in the primary by a Tea Party candidate, Crist refused to accept the verdict of his party’s voters, launched an independent candidacy, and worst of all, flipped on many key issues that he had strongly advocated as a Republican. This is not enlightenment, but rather cynical opportunism that shows a politician who is determined to achieve power and will re-invent his principles to accomplish that goal. Untrustworthiness Factors: lack of integrity, dishonesty, disloyalty (to his party.)
9. Eddie Bernice Johnson, (D., House, Tx.): Rep. Johnson took scholarship money designated by the Congressional Black Caucus (through its charitable foundation) to help needy and deserving students in her district go to college, and awarded it instead to her grandchildren and the children of her staff members, none of whom were eligible for the money. When this was finally discovered after years of misappropriation, she variously claimed that there were no better qualified applicants for the scholarship in her district (she had barely publicized the fund’s existence), that giving money to grandchildren wasn’t technically nepotism, and that she had never read the CBC Foundation’s guidelines. Untrustworthiness Factors: lack of integrity, disloyalty (to her own constituents and their children), dishonesty, conflict of interest, unfairness, lack of accountability, lack of fiscal responsibility, abuse of power and process.
10. Rich Iott (R., House, Ohio): It may be unfair (though I don’t think so), but Rich Iott requires a special rule that, thankfully,isn’t needed very often. It is the rule that a candidate who belongs to an organization dedicated to honoring a Nazi S.S. unit and who dresses in a Nazi uniform for recreation should not be trusted to hold elected office in America. Iott also did not divulge this embarrassing hobby to his supporters, and has tried to explain his club’s failure to mention either the Holocaust or their favorite Nazi soldiers’ atrocities against Russian women and children as justifiable “promotion.” Ugh. Untrustworthiness Factors: lack of candor, irresponsibility, lack of accountability, disrespect (to the victims of Nazi Germany), lack of caring and empathy, dubious values.
11. Rep. Bob Etheridge (D., House, NC.): Etheridge was videoed physically manhandling a much smaller young man who dared to ask the Congressman a question he didn’t like. His apology, after the video became public, was grudging and unconvincing. Using physical force and intimidation on a member of the public demonstrates disrespect for citizens, a lack of self-control and fairness, terrible judgment, and the disposition of a bully. Untrustworthiness Factors: irresponsibility, unfairness, disrespect, lawlessness, lack of accountability, arrogance.
12. Rep Roy Blunt (R, U.S. Senate, Missouri): Blunt has been routinely flagged by C.R.E.W. (Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington) as one of Congress’s most flagrantly unethical members, and for good reason: he has been involved in a series of suspicious quid pro quo deals that look a lot like trading legislation for cash. That was just in the House; imagine what he might do in the Senate. You can read the whole ugly story here. Untrustworthiness Factors: conflicts of interest, appearance of impropriety, abuse of power, dishonesty.
13. Rep. Jim Moran, (D., House, VA.): Moran should have been voted out of the House long ago for unethical conduct, which has in the past included accepting a no-interest loan from lobbyist and accepting mortgage assistance from a bank prior to voting on new a new banking law. He is still at it, however: Moran was one of the House members inexplicably cleared of corruption this year in the PMA scandal, despite convincing evidence that they accepted campaign contributions from the lobbying firm in exchange for earmarks benefiting the firm’s clients. Moran is an old fashioned politician on the take, and it is disgraceful that his liberal Northern Virginia constituents allow him to stay in office. [Note: All of the other House members who escaped sanctions in the PMA scandal, including Marcy Kaptur (D-OH), Norm Dicks (D-WA), Rep. Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.), Todd Tahrt (R-Kan.) and Rep. Bill Young (R-FL), should be on the Untrustworthy List, but there is just not enough room. Moran is a fitting representative, however.] Untrustworthiness Factors: conflicts of interest, appearance of impropriety, dishonesty, lack of integrity.
14. Sharon Angle (R., U.S. Senate, Nev.): This list has avoided including candidates based on their loopy and irresponsible policy positions. With Angle, as with Rand Paul and some others, this can be unsettling, but Angle disqualified herself by raising the threat of an armed insurrection by citizens if the federal government continued to ignore their needs and rights. Even suggesting violence as a reasonable resolution of political disputes demonstrates such a lack of respect for democratic traditions, law and civil conduct that it must erase any possibility of trust. Untrustworthiness Factors: disrespect for law, process and fellow citizens, irresponsibility, recklessness.
15. Rep. John Conyers (D., House, Mich.): Conyers isn’t the only supporter of the massive health care reform bill not to have read it; indeed, there is an open question whether any lawmaker did. He is, however, the only House member to ridicule the suggestion that law makers should read huge, expensive, complex, life-altering, budget-busting bills before they inflict them on trusting citizens. Conyers’s comment at a National Press Club luncheon raised the rebuttable presumption that he doesn’t read any bills at all. Well, that’s outrageous. If the bills are too long, make them shorter. If the bills are too complicated, write them clearer. When a Speaker of the House has the gall to say, as Nancy Pelosi said about the health care bill, that we had to pass it to find out what was in it, then House members have forgotten the A-B-C’s of professional responsibility for legislators, of which “A” is “know what you are voting for.” Conyers not only admits to not doing his job, but thinks that’s the way it should be. Untrustworthiness Factors: lack of diligence, incompetence, recklessness, disrespect for process, irresponsibility, arrogance, laziness.
16. Carl Paladino (R., Governor, NY.): In the midst of reported attacks on gay youths in his state, Paladino publicly denigrated gays in a speech, giving comfort and encouragement to bullies and bigots. Untrustworthiness Factors: incompetence, irresponsible, unfair, disrespectful, lack of empathy and caring, cruelty.
17. Rep. Sanford Bishop (D., House, GA.) See Rep. Eddie Bernice Williams above: Bishop did the same thing. Untrustworthiness Factors: lack of integrity, disloyalty (to his own constituents and their children), dishonesty, conflict of interest, unfairness, lack of accountability, lack of fiscal responsibility, abuse of power and process.
18. Joe Miller (R., U.S. Senate, Alaska ) Sometimes you get only one chance to prove you can be honest, accountable, candid and courageous. Miller got it, and whiffed. Accused of engaging in inappropriate use of office resources while employed as a government lawyer, Miller denied the story, stonewalled documents, and announced that he wouldn’t answer questions about his past. Then his former boss came forward substantiating the accusations, so Miller finally admitted the incident. Too late. He was dishonest, evasive, and unwilling to take responsibility or level with the public. He does not deserve a second chance. Untrustworthiness Factors: lack of integrity, lack of candor, dishonesty, lack of accountability, lack of responsibility, cowardice.
19. Rep. Laura Richardson ( D., House, Cal.): Richardson’s finances are a mess, making her a potential target for lobbying pressure. She may have succumbed to it, too: the bank that foreclosed on her home for her failure to pay her mortgage mysteriously stopped the proceedings. She has repeatedly run up debts she was unable to pay, and at one point made a large personal loan to her campaign committee with cash that was owed to creditors. She has made C.R.E.W.’s most corrupt members of Congress list for three years in a row, but the bottom line with Richardson is that she cannot be trusted to balance her checkbook, meaning that it is foolhardy for voters to allow her anywhere near the U.S. Treasury. You can read the gory details here. Untrustworthiness Factors: fiscal irresponsibility, lack of candor, lack of accountability, lack of responsibility, appearance of impropriety.
20. Sen. Lisa Murchowski (I., U.S.Senate, Alaska) Murchowski stands for all those politicians who are governed by base instincts rather than principles and values, instincts like ambition, spite and revenge. She accepted her father’s Senate seat without earning it, allowing him to engage in blatant nepotism when, as Governor of Alaska, he appointed his own daughter to fill the seat he had vacated. Then, this year, she was upset in the Republican primary by Joe Miller. Rather than accept the will of her party’s voters, she decided to run as a write-in candidate, even if it meant defeat for her party. Among her campaign tactics: using an endorsement from a dead political ally and Alaska icon, Ted Stevens, that was recorded for the primary, as if Stevens had somehow approved his own post mortem support for a candidate running against his own party. Those, like Sen. Murchowki, who are so determined to hold power that they reject fairness, loyalty, process and decency cannot be trusted to hold it any longer. Untrustworthiness Factors: disloyalty, dishonesty, lack of integrity, lack of fairness, lack of respect for process, arrogance
And there they are, the “Untrustworthy Twenty.”
Let’s vote for someone else, okay?
Addendum: Shortly after this was posted, a 21st untrustworthy candidate’s qualifications were brought to my attention: West Virginia Senate candidate, Gov. Joe Manshin.