Ethics Observations On Sticks, Leadership, And Chris Christie’s Vindictive Bridge Closing Scandal

Christie apologizes

Before we delve into the starting point for most ethics inquiries—What’s going on here?— a summary…

Last September, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey closed all but one lane of the George Washington Bridge , horrifically tangling commuter transportation in Fort Lee, New Jersey, just across bridge from Manhattan. The lane closures  delayed emergency responders to four calls, and may have resulted in at least one death. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s office had attributed the lane closures to a traffic study.  But smoking gun e-mails emerged proving beyond the shadow of a doubt that the bridge closing was far more sinister: top Christie aides engineered the gridlock specifically to cause problems for Fort Lee, whose mayor had angered the Governor by refusing to endorse him for re-election. It was political payback of a particularly brutal and Machiavellian sort.

“Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” wrote Bridget Anne Kelly, a deputy chief of staff to Christie, in an email on Aug. 13 to David Wildstein, Christie’s appointee at the Port Authority. Wildstein resigned in December after news of the scandal first broke; he has since refused to answer questions in a hearing on the matter, citing the Fifth Amendment. Christie fired Kelly yesterday, and in a long and emotional press conference, profusely apologized while insisting that he knew nothing of the plot, but accepted responsibility for the actions of his staff. The incident is attracting national interest because Christie, a Republican,  is an intriguing and controversial  potential candidate for a 2016 Presidential run.

Observations:

  • This is bad, and there is no defense for it. Government power should never be abused like this, by anyone. Distorting one’s duties to the public to harm members of the public out of such motives as spite, revenge, retribution, intimidation or personal and political gain is the moral equivalent of a crime.
  • In fact, it should be a crime. It can’t be, because the problem is that some degree of such distortions of the duty to act in the public’s best interest are essential political tools that cannot be jettisoned without undermining effective leadership as well. Politics works through the carrot and the stick, and the stick virtually always causes collateral damage. At every level of government, refusing to do what a powerful leader wants must have negative consequences, or nobody will do what the leader wants, and he or she will no longer be effective. That, in the end, hurts the public too–presumably more seriously than the short-term harm from political payback. Continue reading