Ethical issues are easier to denounce than evaluate

February 16, 1997|By Elise Armacost

OH, FOR THE GOOD old bad old days of Maryland politics when you didn't need to consult a half-dozen professional ethicists to decide if somebody was doing something wrong.

Anderson. Agnew. Alton. Mandel. We didn't have to turn to Common Cause to know that what they had done was unethical. It was obvious. Black and white.

Lessons were learned from that notorious period. We got smarter about the people we elected. Officials saw that the old you-look- after-me, I-look-after-you way of doing things wasn't going to fly any more; the press and the public were on to it. Governments started competitively bidding contracts. Ethics panels were born. The phrase ''conflict of interest'' found meaning.

Today, governments are pretty clean. Abuse of public office for personal gain or for the benefit of one's friends has become rare. Jackie McLean was, happily, an anomaly.

Something grayer

What still permeates government in Maryland -- and will as long as elected leaders have friends, relatives and lives outside politics -- is something grayer: a variety of ethical quandaries resulting from their everyday relationships. They run the gamut from serious ethical breaches to messy but insignificant conflicts.

These dilemmas are easier to spot than evaluate. Even professional ethicists often can't agree on their seriousness. Is it any wonder we've become jaded? It's easier to assume all politicians are venal than figure out which conflicts really betray venality, which are the product of poor judgment and which simply do not matter.

Learn the difference

L We must learn the difference, or risk undermining democracy.

Did this commissioner or that council member benefit personally from his action? If so, did he deliberately set out to enrich himself? Did he disclose this beneficial relationship before his decision? Or did he try to hide it?

Is this mayor or that county executive using his influence to give BTC friends jobs they don't deserve or permits that shouldn't be granted?

Is the conflict real or illusory? Is the matter political rather than ethical?

Finally, and this is most important, is the conflict so great that it impedes the official's ability to do his job? Could he simply recuse himself on matters relating to it?

Answer these questions, and murky ethical waters become clearer.

Take state Sen. Robert R. Neall. After his recent appointment to the Senate, he announced he would continue to lobby the local government in Anne Arundel County on behalf of two residential developers. He initially believed himself on solid ethical ground because, as a state lawmaker, he has no direct hand in regulating development. However, as a senator, he would make decisions about the amount of state aid Anne Arundel would receive for schools and other needs. Even unintentionally, that power would give him undue influence over the local regulators charged with deciding his clients' fates.

A wise decision

He stood to gain and recusal was not possible; the conflict would taint nearly everything he did. Wisely, he quit lobbying.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, an eye-care contract awarded to the wife of Baltimore's Mayor Kurt Schmoke only appeared to be a conflict. Patricia Schmoke, an ophthalmologist, won the contract through a competitive bid. You cannot blame the mayor because his wife played by the rules and won.

What about Baltimore County Executive C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger and his relationship with MBNA, the credit-card giant that plans to relocate to his backyard? The executive owns a debt-collection agency that does business with the credit-card company.

Does this pose a conflict? No. Mr. Ruppersberger's business would not be more profitable after the relocation. Further, the executive has promised to distance himself from any regulatory decisions related to the company's move.

Mere residence

We must be on guard against ethical lapses, and we must demand disclosure of public officials' relationships, because we can't judge a conflict we don't know about. But we must be reasonable. After all, merely residing in the district you represent poses a conflict. Are we going to make an issue of how much money a county executive saves himself by lowering the property-tax rate?

We can learn to expect and evaluate conflicts, or demand the total disassociation of politicians from real life -- essentially, the creation of a professional political class that does nothing else and knows nothing else. We'd get freedom from conflict -- in exchange for leaders with no connection to the communities they represent.

A lousy trade-off, I'd say.

Elise Armacost writes editorials for The Sun.

Pub Date: 2/16/97

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