The don'ts and dos of public service

June 26, 2008|By DAN RODRICKS

Attention, elected officials: In case you haven't been paying attention for the past 35 years - you know, since Agnew's time - here's a little refresher course on avoiding scandal and ruin. It's a public service - a list of dos and don'ts, but mostly don'ts, that will help you avoid needless stress, embarrassment, astronomical legal bills and concerns about indictment as you enjoy healthy and rewarding careers in service to your constituents. Most of you already know this stuff, but it has become obvious in recent days that some need a remedial course.

1. Public trust is everything. It is hard won and easily lost. Try not to lose it. If you lose it, you can pray to St. Anthony 24-7 for a week and never get it back.

2. Don't take bribes. It may seem like an obvious thing, like "Don't do dope" or "Don't fry bacon while naked." But it can't be said enough. The lesson of the late Spiro T. Agnew, the one-time Maryland governor who took bribes even after becoming vice president of the United States, is probably long lost now. So here's a gentle reminder to a new generation - do not take gifts from people who might want you to influence legislation or government contracts. It's pretty much against the law. You can look it up.

3. Don't make the mistake of thinking you're smarter than everyone else - that you can come up with the perfect scheme to reward friends or relatives with government contracts or other benefits, and keep it all a secret. You might think you've found a loophole in a law, or a novel way to skirt the rules, but it's unlikely, pal. Most of this stuff has been tried before, and the list of Maryland pols who've been caught with hands in various cookie jars is long.

4. Assuming you don't pay attention to the advice I just gave you, and you think you can get away with taking bribes, then consider this: Small bribes, big bribes - either way, you're probably going to get caught, so don't bother. Even small bribes can be traced faster than ever, with credit records, bank transactions, wire transfers. Big bribes might seem worth a calculated risk - a way to put something away for retirement, pay for a college education, or treat yourself to a lovely winter coat. But unless you're going offshore and have a perfect escape plan for leaving the country, like Andy Dufresne in Shawshank Redemption, then forget it. The feds will find a way of seizing your loot, and, instead of Zihuatanejo, you'll end up in Lewisburg.

5. Pay attention to the people around you. Next to winning MegaBucks or being the only one on your block with a massive-screen TV during football season, there is no surer way to accumulate sudden friends than by being elected to public office. Keep your old friends, but keep an eye on those who suddenly seek entrance into your circle. Be nice but be suspicious. If someone says they love ya, find out why.

6. Watch out for mental lapses, especially when it comes to bribes. If you're in public life for several years, you can forget stuff, especially as you get older. (I have to write myself a note to take daily vitamins. Same thing.) You could even be bribed and not realize it. Guy with a flat nose walks up to you at a busy reception, hands you an envelope, winks and says, "Mr. Goopy says thanks." Without even thinking about it, you stick the envelope in your pocket, thinking it's a Christmas card or something. Someone captures the moment on a cell phone camera, and you're cooked. That kind of thing could happen to anyone. Don't let it happen to you.

7. Don't hire relatives. Again, this might seem obvious, but apparently some people in public office still try to do it. Tell your sister or brother they need to find their own way through life. Love them, counsel them, then send them to careerbuilder.com.

8. Don't vote on anything that can benefit a close friend, like a tax break or municipal contract. If you do this, ignoring Rule No. 3, then don't jump on a train or plane for a fabulous celebration weekend with the friend on the same day of your vote. Wait a couple of days.

9. Don't give your former campaign chairman a contract to provide services to a government agency, especially your own. Again, if you ignore Rule No. 3 and try to pull this off, then make the guy go through a competitive bidding process, however rigged in his favor. Otherwise, it will look 100 times worse when some nosy newspaper reporter or government auditor discovers the subterfuge.

10. Don't flaunt it. Big cars, fur coats, expensive wardrobe - you're just going to call attention to yourself. In all my years in Maryland, I know of one pol who got away with stuff on a big scale. The feds were after him forever and could never nail him. The guy lived modestly, owned a simple rowhouse, and his big pleasure in life was a medium-size cabin cruiser he took out on the bay. Died a millionaire - never raided, never indicted, never embarrassed, and he never embarrassed his constituents.

dan.rodricks@baltsun.com

Dan Rodricks can be heard on Midday, Mondays through Thursdays, noon to 2 p.m., on 88.1 WYPR-FM.

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