This post should not be read as a comment on any specific allegations against any current elected official in the City of Houston or Harris County, or as a recommended course of action in response to those allegations. But with one City Council member having just been investigated for ethics questions related to doing business with the City, and with one County Commissioner having just been tried for bribery, I want to address the larger issues raised by the specific questions involved in those cases.
Specific questions raised by those cases are—
- When should a public official continue doing business through a private entity with the government he or she was elected to supervise?
- Where does a public official draw the line between the intent to accept gifts as part of a continued friendship, and the appearance of accepting payments for influence with the government he or she was elected to manage?
From a broader perspective, these questions, for me, raise more fundamental questions, which have nothing to do with whether a criminal or civil law has been broken:
- At what point does an elected official’s behavior violate the public’s trust?
- What should be the consequences for breaking that trust?
It is these larger questions I will address in this post.
Let’s start with two obvious, yet fundamental, points:
- First, most public officials are just like us—they do their best to be honest and to do their jobs every day with integrity.
- Second, none of us are perfect. We all make mistakes and misjudgments throughout our life—that is part of being human. Being human has never disqualified anyone from serving in public office.
However, mistakes and misjudgments made by public officials, even in matters, relationships, or transactions that normally would be considered private, affect the conduct of public affairs. The real question at the core of this issue is, at what point do arguably private misjudgments of public officials violate the public trust?
This is a question that has vexed our society since the first settlements were formed. Although our Founders addressed this issue in the Federalist Papers, and believed they were creating a national government that reduced the risk of graft and unethical use of public office through the checks and balances built into the system, they recognized that the system was not fool-proof—and history has shown us that our national government has not been scandal-free. But even a cursory review of American History shows that our most enduring problem with ethics has been at the local level of government.
Why have our local governments been so susceptible to this problem over the centuries? I can think of at least three factors that continuously intertwine to perpetuate this problem:
- none of us are angels; even when we have been raised in an atmosphere that prizes the traits and exercise of character and virtue, we periodically will succumb to temptations, fail to exercise self-restraint, and take risks that lead to making wrong choices, especially when such choices seem to benefit us without appearing to directly harm anyone else;
- the greatest external restraint on elected officials in local government was supposed to be the fact that they would not risk the humiliation to themselves or their families of being caught lying to, cheating, or stealing from their neighbors; but as our communities have grown into cities, and our neighbors have become more anonymous “voters” to our elected officials, this fear of humiliation no longer plays a strong role in restraining behavior; and
- fewer and fewer people actually pay attention to local government, know who their local officials are, or know what they do, and those that do are usually those with a financial or political incentive for gain from local government; as a result, a lot of mischief happens when no one is looking.
We can pass all the civil and criminal laws we want, and force attendance to as many “ethics” classes as possible, but without some personal restraints applied at a personal level by or on our local officials, no law or class will thwart the temptation for some to seek as much private gain as they possibly can get from public office.
So what are the answers to my questions—at what point do arguably private misjudgments of public officials violate the public trust, and what should be the consequences for that breach?
In answer to the first question, the best I can come up with is to ask our elected officials to envision what our children would think if they knew the behavior you were engaged in, or were contemplating. For instance:
- Would our children think it is right or fair to continue to do business and profit from that business with the very government you were elected to supervise?
- Would our children think it is right or fair to continue accepting gifts from a friend while that friend was seeking and obtaining business and profit from the government you were elected to manage?
- Would our children think that it is right or fair to continue such behavior without at least abstaining from the process of approving or supervising those transactions with the government you were elected to manage?
Better yet, if our children came home and told us that they were engaging in this type of behavior at school, or in an extra-curricular activity or organization, would we condone it?
If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” then a switch should flip in the brain that says “stop.” If you want to proceed with the transactions and continue to receive the benefits, then you should leave public office—there is nothing dishonorable about that choice. On the other hand, if there is no flip of the switch and you continue with the behavior, or if it flips and you still proceed with the behavior, and decide to stay in public office, I believe that the public trust has been breached regardless of whether a law has been violated. In that event, you have created the appearance that you are using your office for private gain—and the public can no longer trust that you have not used your office in this way regardless of your intentions. The consequence for violation of that trust should be exposure and censure, and, eventually, dismissal by the voters at the next election.
In the end, however, the ultimate consequence should be our vigilance as citizens to shine as much light on our local governments as we shine on our state and national governments, and to hold our local officials to the high standard that we are entitled to expect from those who have asked us for the privilege of serving our community. This vigilance is even more important today if we ever want to limit government at the federal and state levels, because we will need highly effective and ethical local governments to serve as tools for helping to rebuild our communities and schools.
If we don’t exercise that vigilance, then we will deserve the behavior and the government that results.