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

The Sanford Bishop Saga: Pondering the Ethical Implications of Another Congressional Black Caucus Scholarship Cheat

At this point, anyone who is surprised to learn that a member of the Congressional Black Caucus has been caught violating basic principles of ethics has not been paying attention. The Caucus has systematically corrupted itself by excusing blatant misconduct by its members for so long, reasoning—wrongly—that it is more important for black members of Congress to show loyalty and solidarity with their race than to be role models and honest public servants. Sadly, it would be newsworthy to learn that there is a CBC member who is passionate about holding public servants to a high level of trustworthiness. There apparently are no such members, however. If there were some, they would have resigned from an organization that reflexively defends black Representatives who abuse their power, position and trust (thus endorsing unethical conduct) and cries racism when anyone outside the Caucus, including the House Ethics Committee, criticizes the obvious.

Perhaps this is why the revelation that Rep. Stanford Bishop (D-GA.) distributed scholarship funds intended for needy students in his district to family members and political cronies received so little media attention. Continue reading

“The Ethicist” and His Definition of “Unethical”

Eureka! Bingo! At last!

While explaining in this week’s column why he hesitates to label a manifestly unethical practice unethical, The New York Times Magazine’s ethicist, Randy Cohen, clarified a couple of questions that have been bothering me for quite a while. Why do so many people react so violently to my conclusion that they have done something unethical? And why does Randy Cohen, a.k.a. “The Ethicist” so frequently endorse unethical conduct, especially dishonesty, when he believes it is motivated by virtuous motives? Continue reading

Ethics Quote of the Month: Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson

“I did not have an ethical alarm go off.”

Dallas Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, explaining (but not really) how she managed to give  23 of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation scholarships Johnson has awarded since 2005 to two grandsons from Austin, two great-nephews from Plano, and two children of her top aide, despite explicit rules prohibiting nepotism, and requiring the scholarship to go to needy recipients in her own district, which none of these recipients were.

But thanks for the plug, Congresswoman! (It is “ethics alarm,” however, not “ethical alarm.”) Continue reading

Unscrupulous Rep. Johnson, Lying Through Her Teeth

Which is the more unethical conduct for a U.S. Congresswoman: handing out non-profit money to relatives and friends, or lying about it so flagrantly that it insults the intelligence of everyone within earshot? It’s a tough call. Luckily, we really don’t have to decide in the case of Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), because she’s done both. Continue reading