A continuing battle on Ethics Alarms, one that bursts into flame when elections loom, is whether it is responsible to vote for an unethical candidate for office because he or she supports policies the voter favors. I resolutely vote “no” on that proposition, believing that in the long run, government and society are better served by plodding but trustworthy public servants than wily and corrupt ones. The ideal, of course, is to find candidates who are competent, trustworthy, dedicated and who pursue effective policies. Good luck.
Few cities have embraced the opposite of the Ethics Alarms approach more consistently than the District of Columbia. The nation’s most liberal region has traditionally chosen to ignore corrupt city officials, and has paid a high price. A culture of corruption has been festering in the District for decades, spear-headed by the smug, machine-politics reign of Marion Barry, elected both before and after a prison sentence for possessing crack (in the midst of an anti-drug campaign for schoolchildren, naturally). Barry still pollutes D.C. government as a city councilman, but his legacy is complete: the whole government is an ethics sewer.
In 2013, more than thirty D.C. employees were arrested, indicted, pleaded guilty or were sent to jail from such diverse cesspools as the D.C. Department of Employment Services, the Department of Human Services, the Children and Youth Investment Trust Corp., a city-owned hospital, the Office of Campaign Finance, D.C. Medicaid, the Corrections Department, a charter school and Medicare. The tally of money embezzled, accepted in bribes, defrauded or spent on illegal political campaign contributions was about $19 million. Former D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. pleaded guilty to stealing $350,000 in taxpayer money meant to benefit children. Former council chairman Kwame Brown pleaded guilty to a felony bank fraud charge; and former council member Michael A. Brown confessed to an illegal bribery scheme. Colbert King, the Washington Post’s city beat columnist who tirelessly urges the city to clean up its act cataloged the extent of D.C.’s corruption last year. He pointed out:
- “14 people from the Washington area were arrested and charged with obtaining more than $250,000 in unemployment benefits from the Department of Employment Services while they were employed.”
- “On the same day, Sept. 5, a city social services worker was charged with creating false identities that allowed her to steal more than $700,000 in cash, food stamps and health benefits.”
- “A former employee of United Medical Center, the city-owned successor to Greater Southeast Community Hospital,pleaded guilty to a federal charge of embezzling more than $335,000 in overtime pay by manipulating the center’s time-keeping system.”
- “A former aide to Vincent Gray’s 2010 mayoral campaign pleaded guilty to making a false statement about his efforts to thwart a federal investigation involving the campaign; he admitted to giving about $8,000 to a potential witness to leave town.
- “A provider of home health-care services to Medicare and D.C. Medicaid beneficiaries was sentenced to eight months in prison for falsifying records in connection with a federal audit.”
- “A federal judge entered a judgment of more than $17 million against a D.C. health-care provider for submitting false nuclear cardiology claims to federal and state health-care programs.The cardiologist was double-billing for tests and services.”
- “A former D.C. corrections officer was sentenced to three months in jail and six months of home detention for accepting $2,500 in bribes to bring contraband into the city jail.”
- “The former chief of staff to Harry Thomas pleaded guilty to a criminal tax charge for her role in channeling $110,000 in youth grant funds to pay for an inaugural ball.”
- “A former temporary employee of a D.C. charter school pleaded guilty June 10 to a federal charge of stealing more than $75,000 from the school by issuing and cashing checks to fictitious vendors.”
- “Another former corrections officer pleaded guilty to a federal charge of conspiracy to commit bribery: taking $400 to smuggle drugs into the D.C. jail.”
- “A Philadelphia business owner pleaded guilty to a federal charge of concealing the source of more than $125,000 in campaign contributions. He also admitted to causing at least $49,000 in D.C. political contributions to be made in his name, the names of his relatives and his company to, among others, candidates for mayor and the D.C. Council.”
- “Another D.C. business executive pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge involving more than $150,000 in campaign contributions.
- “The executive director of a nonprofit pleaded guilty to wire fraud and admitted using more than $200,000 in city grants to youth programs for gambling and other personal expenses.”
King added, bitterly, “And those are just the ones we know about.”
“What makes this so disgusting,” King wrote, “is that too many elected officials responsible for overseeing government lack the moral authority to influence anybody or anything because of their own conduct. …Voters, it’s time to wake up.”
Fat chance. D.C. is a one-party town, and a Democrat will be elected here if he is anything short of an axe-murdering rapist. Currently, the city has a Mayor, Vincent Gray, whose term has been shadowed by suspicions of corruption from the start. He has also, however, managed the city pretty well—outside of the little matter of enabling an unethical culture, that is. Thus Gray posed an excellent test for the Ethics Alarms principle of public service, especially after strong evidence surfaced that Gray’s election in 2010 was helped considerably by an illegal conspiracy in which he played a part. Would D.C. voters finally decide that enough was enough, and opt, at last, for ethics over cynicism and expediency?
Incredibly, the answer was yes. Councilwoman Muriel E. Bowser won the Democratic mayoral nomination yesterday in field of seven including the mayor, denying Gray a second term. Voter after voter, interviewed by reporters, said the same thing: they weren’t sure whether or not Gray was guilty—no indictment has come down yet, but one is expected—but they were sure that an anti-corruption message had to be sent to the city’s politicians and leaders. Enough was enough. Finally.
True, it was a disgracefully low turnout, but that’s all right: apathetic voters are always patsies for corruption. This is where civic literacy and involvement works in a democracy. Those who are paying attention take over.
There is hope for America. If the District of Columbia can vote for ethics, anything is possible.