Rangel’s Corruption Continues, Whatever He Calls It

“In all fairness, I was not found guilty of corruption, I did not go to bed with kids, I did not hurt the House speaker, I did not start a revolution against the United States of America, I did not steal any money, I did not take any bribes, and that is abundantly clear.”

—-Rep. Charles Rangel, less than a week following his historic censure by the House of Representatives for repeated violations of House ethics rules

Thus did Charlie Rangel embrace the Clinton Standard after proven unethical conduct, which can be loosely translated as “it’s not what I did that matters, it’s what I didn’t do that should have counted.” In Clinton’s case, the defense was that his lies and obstruction of justice were in the context of what he and his defenders dubbed “personal” misconduct, not the official “high crimes” required by the Constitution, and that his real offense was being a Democrat. Rangel’s adaptation: sure he broke rules, but that was not what the House has called “corrupt” in the past, and thus he can hold his head up high. Continue reading

Ethics Alarms and ProEthics Presents “The Untrustworthy 20”: Making Ethics the Priority in Election 2010

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: Continue reading

Reid on Obama: When the Apology is Worse Than the Offense

Publicly apologizing for conduct that wasn’t wrong creates a cultural misconception that such conduct is wrong. This confuses and misleads everyone. It would be nice, not to mention responsible and courageous, for public figures who find themselves being attacked by public opinion mobs for “offending” the wrong person or group, to demand some precision regarding their so-called offense before begging for forgiveness.

This is obviously too much to expect from politicians, perhaps because they seem to have such a difficult time figuring out the difference between right and wrong in the best of circumstances. Rep. Joe “You lie!” Wilson apologized, but made it clear that he was proud of what he did, making his apology a formality rather than a genuine expression of regret. Now Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has quickly apologized for private comments he made about Barack Obama, reported in a new campaign ’08 backroom gossip book by journalists Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. Because the reporting of Reid’s comments has resulted in his being accused of racism, and because Reid himself has been quick to accuse others of racism when it suited his purposes, the apology was inevitable. It also has written another incomprehensible definition into Washington’s “Things Politicians Can’t Say” Code. Continue reading

What Congress calls “Ethical”

Of all the ethically brain-dead comments I have heard from politicians over the years, Steny Hoyer (D-MD ) the House Majority Leader, might take the trophy. In the wake of an unintentional leak of House Ethics Committee records showing that nearly 30 Democrats were under investigation, Hoyer made the stunning statement that this shows the Democrats are living up to their promise to run the “most ethical” Congress in history.

If I can stop sputtering long enough to type, let me clarify for the Congressman. The most ethical Congress is not the one with the most ethics investigations. It is the one with the fewest members whose conduct warrant investigation for wrongdoing. If Hoyer’s reasoning wa accurate, then the safest U.S. city would be the one with the most murder investigations. The most honorable West Point class would be the one undergoing the most cheating inquiries. The most environmentally responsible corporation would be the one that was being investigated for the most alleged dumping infractions. In short, what the heck is Hoyer talking about? Is he that stupid, or does he think we are?

This Congress just had a former member, William Jeffferson, convicted of taking bribes after $90,000 was found in his freezer.  This Congress has a Ways and Means Chairman, Rep. Charles Rangel, who admittedly has failed to report large amounts of money to the IRS (note that Ways and Means writes tax legislation), and that is just the latest of his ethics problems. This Congress is looking at a massive lobbying scandal of Abramoff proportions, with clients of the lobbying firm The PMA Group, staffed with former employees of defense appropriators,  winning defense-bill earmarks for its clients to the tune of nearly $300 million, thanks to dubious relationships with seven of the 16 members of the Defense Appropriations subcommittee—including the five most senior Democrats on the panel and the top Republican.

There’s more of that unsavory stuff being looked at by the Ethics Committee, but  lot of serious ethical misconduct isn’t  thought of that way, because it doesn’t involve obvious corruption. This Congress became the only one in history to have a member, Joe Wilson (R-SC) insult (“You lie!”) the President of the United States in the middle of a speech. This Congress had another member, Allan Grayson, call a female advisor to the Fed Chief a “whore.” This Congress has a Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, who has called the CIA liars and impugned the integrity of American citizens who have demonstrated against her policies or questioned her health care bill.

Can one of the most uncivil, disrespectful, undignified and partisan Congresses in history also be the “most ethical”? Only to someone who doesn’t know what ethical is…such as, I fear, Steny Hoyer.

Is it ethical  for legislators to vote for revolutionary, expensive legislation that they haven’t read, an outrageous dereliction of responsibility and diligence that is not only rampant in this Congress, but shameless.? Is it ethical for legislators to stuff bills with budget-busting earmarks, and resist the efforts of members who attempt to make the process transparent and rare?

Cynics among you might argue that Hoyer could still be right, that this could be “the most ethical Congress” and still be a cesspool, given the competition. But to qualify as most ethical (as opposed to “least unethical”), there has to be some evidence of ethical conduct, and having ongoing investigations of a welter of unethical conduct by members isn’t it.

What would be evidence of an ethical Congress? Honesty and transparency with earmarks. Competency and responsiblity, meaning the production of bills that aren’t 2000 pages long (like the current House health care legislation), and no member voting for a bill he or she hasn’t read and understood. Accountability, requiring a member like Rep. Rangel to resign his Chairmanship before any ruling by the Ethics Committee, since the facts of his tax misconduct are very clear, and they alone disqualify him from his powerful Ways and Means post.

A truly ethical Congress wouldn’t have anything for the Ethics Committee to investigate.

No, Hoyer isn’t stupid. He is just permanently addled by too much exposure to Washington’s warped definition of ethical, which is defined in the Capitol as what you can get away with without being disgraced or punished. Until Congress develops higher standards than that, boasting about the “most ethical Congress” makes as much sense as arguing about who owns the most articulate cow.