Most unethical behavior isn't hard to spot

COMMENT

December 27, 1998|By Brian Sullam

JUDGING from the recent rulings from the county's Ethics Commission, two of Anne Arundel's former elected officials made behaving ethically appear unnecessarily difficult.

Earlier this month, the Ethics Commission issued a report chastising former County Executive John G. Gary for using photographs of on-duty, uniformed police in his campaign literature.

Two weeks ago, the Ethics Commission ruled that former County Councilman Thomas W. Redmond Sr. violated county ethics law by participating in council votes that directly benefited a business associate and indirectly helped his own hauling business.

In both instances, the ethical issues were straightforward. There was no need for a professional ethicist to parse these cases.

For whatever reasons, Mr. Gary and Mr. Redmond apparently could not do what was right.

Mr. Gary knew better than to include three photographs of uniformed, on-duty policemen in a campaign brochure.

Mr. Gary said that his campaign staff set up the photographic session. He assumed the officers were off duty. The appearance of uniformed officers should have alerted Mr. Gary that something was amiss.

Law is clear

County law and regulations prohibit public employees from engaging in partisan activity while working. That principle applies to police as well.

Using uniformed police officers -- even if they were off duty -- for campaign purposes can create the impression that the county's law enforcement officers are political pawns.

Nothing could be more detrimental to the police and the public. The police won't garner much respect if the public believes that the police favor one party or candidate over another when enforcing the law.

One of the bedrock principles of our government is that the allegiance of the police department is to the law and not to an elected official, candidate or political party.

Failing to understand that principle may explain, in part, why Mr. Gary is no longer in office.

Mr. Redmond's case is even more straightforward.

The former 3rd District councilman introduced legislation that enabled William H. DeBaugh Jr. to operate a wood chipping and concrete recycling business on his Pasadena property, which is in the middle of a residential community.

After he introduced the legislation, Mr. Redmond admitted that he had a business relationship with Mr. DeBaugh. Mr. Redmond's waste-hauling business has paid Mr. DeBaugh between $1,000 and $5,000 annually to process scrap wood and concrete. Mr. Redmond also was paid about $650 a year to empty a trash bin periodically on Mr. DeBaugh's property.

Mr. Redmond did not disclose any of these relationships, nor did he seek any advice from the Ethics Commission.

As a result, he duped fellow council members into believing that this was a routine bill that took care of a problem for a constituent.

Given that he had a business relationship with Mr. DeBaugh, Mr. Redmond should have recused himself from introducing, lobbying for and voting on this legislation.

Earning public trust

Legislators are expected to work on behalf of constituents. But Mr. Redmond's actions could not pass for reasonable constituent service.

Mr. DeBaugh was the sole beneficiary of this legislation. The councilman's insensitivity on actual and potential conflicts of interest was astounding.

Part-time elected officials who operate businesses will invariably run into occasions where they must vote on matters that may affect their financial self-interest.

Zoning legislation that benefits only one business or individual always presents problems. In this instance, Mr. Redmond was also taking care of himself.

Some might argue that the amounts of money involved are relatively small, but that's not the issue. Using the instruments of government for self-benefit is wrong, regardless of whether the amount is $650 or $650,000.

Public officials are elected to attend to the public's business, not their own. Why this is so difficult for some officials to understand is puzzling.

Public trust means that public officials should attend to the public's needs, not their own, or those of their friends, family and political supporters. We live in cynical times and the irresponsible behavior of some elected officials only increases that cynicism.

Acknowledging any conflict, no matter how tenuous, is the best way to put ethical questions to rest. When tough questions arise, officials can ensure they adhere to ethical standards by requesting rulings from the Ethics Commission.

Citizens have the right to expect that their representatives, faced with potential conflicts, will do all they can to alleviate suspicion that they are using their offices for private gain. It's a theme that rings these days from Washington to Annapolis and beyond.

Brian Sullam is The Sun's editorial writer in Anne Arundel County.

Pub Date: 12/27/98

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