On Ethics

As I read about the report on Governor Palin’s alleged violation of ethics laws and rules, I started getting the strangest sense of deja vu — that I had read pretty much the same story, but with somewhat different details. And that I had read it more than once.

Here was the story of someone with a stated agenda of reform getting tripped up by their political foes over a technical violation of ethics rules, being roundly denounced as corrupt and venial and selfish far and wide. And it had played out before. But I could not remember where.

Then I heard a news account on the world credit crisis, and they mentioned the World Bank. That triggered it:

Paul Wolfowitz.

Wolfowitz had left the Bush Administration to head up the World Bank, but was forced out after it came out that he had authorized a significant raise for his paramour, a longtime World Bank Employee.

Wolfowitz had his defense ready — before he accepted the position, he had fully disclosed their relationship to the directors. Further, he put in steps to make sure that she would not come under his direct authority, and isolated himself from any part in her career.

Until it came time for her annual raises. All the underlings passed the buck upstream until it reached his desk, saying that her position had risen to the point where no one short of the head of the bank — Wolfowitz himself — had to sign off on the matter. He consulted the ethics board, and they punted the issue back in his lap. So he signed off on it without comment.

Then they had him. Someone else within the bank filed an ethics complaint over Wolfowitz giving his girlfriend a healthy raise, and that was that. Wolfowitz was out.

And, oddly, I was reminded — tangentially — of former Representative Tom DeLay. DeLay had the misfortune of crossing the path of a very enthusiastic prosecutor in Texas with a history of going after his political rivals and opponents. This prosecutor was convinced that DeLay was corrupt, and started investigating. He thought he had found some fundraising irregularities in DeLay’s campaign, so he brought the matter to a grand jury.

They refused to indict DeLay.

So he waited for a new grand jury, and tried for another indictment. This time he got it, but there was one slight problem: the deeds that DeLay was charged with had occurred the year before the law banning them was passed. In brief, the prosecutor had charged DeLay with breaking a law before it was a law — and that is a violation of the United States Constitution. The indictment was dismissed.

But the third time is the charm, it sees. The prosecutor took his digging to a third grand jury, won a second indictment against DeLay, and finally won his conviction.

Now, I’m not saying that DeLay was any kind of a saint. Indeed, it’s long been a belief of mine that when it comes to members of Congress, the presumption should be “guilty until proven innocent,” and I never had any great respect or affection for DeLay. But when a prosecutor has to go to these great lengths — one grand jury refused to indict, and a second that has to violate the Constitution to hand up its indictment — I’m convinced that it’s more likely of a prosecutor with a vendetta than a flagrantly corrupt politician.

And that, to me, is far more dangerous than a pol who takes some money than he should.

But back to Sarah Palin. What exactly does that report say, and what does it mean?

First off, it’s not any official, final report. It’s just the report of the investigator to the legislative committee that hired him.

Second, the two conclusions come across as somewhat contradictory:

* Governor Sarah Palin abused her power by violating Alaska Statute 39.52.110(a) of the Alaska Executive Branch Ethics Act. Alaska Statute 39.52.110(a) provides: The legislature reaffirms that each public officer holds office as a public trust, and any effort to benefit a personal or financial interest through official action is a violation of that trust.

*Although Walt Monegan’s refusal to fire Trooper Michael Wooten was not the sole reason he was fired by Governor Sarah Palin, it was likely a contributing factor to his termination as Commissioner of Public Safety. In spite of that, Governor Palin’s firing of Commissioner Monegan was a proper and lawful exercise of her constitutional and statutory authority to hire and fire executive branch department heads.

So, Palin had the “proper and lawful” authority to fire Monegan, because she “likely” had his refusal to fire Trooper Wooten as part of her motive, she violated the law which said that public officials must not act in any manner where they might have a personal interest.

That law is so poorly crafted as to be essentially useless. If applied literally, then Palin has violated it countless times.

Her husband works for an oil company. Therefore, every single time she has dealt officially with oil companies, she has violated it.

He also works as a commercial fisherman. Therefore Palin should have nothing to do with any sort of laws governing the fishing industry.

Her teenage daughter is pregnant. Therefore she cannot act on any law helping pregnant teens.

Three of her children attend public schools. Therefore she must recuse herself from any matters dealing with education.

Her youngest child has Down Syndrome. She has to avoid any issue that deals with children with special needs.

What’s more entertaining is to take the same standard and apply it to her current rivals. Of course, Alaskan laws have no legal standing on the actions of Senators from Illinois and Delaware, but it’s a fun little exercise.

Barack Obama steered a one-million-dollar earmark to his wife’s employer, shortly after she received a raise that more than doubled her salary. And Joe Biden voted in favor of several companies after they had hired his son to lobby on their behalf. Were they Alaskan officials, those would be open-and-shut cases of ethics violations.

But let’s get serious once again. Palin’s failing here is not in trying to get Wooten fired, but in not stopping members of her family from doing that.

In brief, Palin is being held responsible for her husband’s pursuing Wooten’s dismissal.

First, is that such a bad thing?

Wooten, it is clear, is a bad cop. The Alaskan state police investigated the allegations made by Palin’s family and upheld most of them. He was found to have violated numerous laws and regulations, laws he was charged with upholding — and was given a slap on the wrist for them.

Wooten drank while on duty, in his cruiser. He shot a moose without a license. He used his taser on his 10-year-old stepson. And he threatened to kill his father-in-law if he helped Wooten’s wife get a lawyer for a divorce Any one of these would get an average person arrested and fined, if not jailed.

Instead, Wooten’s superiors gave him a ten-day suspension from his job. And when his union protested, it was reduced to five days.

This is the situation Todd Palin found himself in. Here was a man who was threatening to kill Palin’s sister-in-law and father-in-law, who had used a taser on Palin’s nephew in front of Palin’s daughter. And not only was he allowed to stay on the job as a law enforcement officer, but as his wife became governor, that very same agency was charged with protecting the physical safety of his wife and their immediate family.

In those circumstances, what sort of person would not pursue every legal option to protect his family?

Apparently, the kind of person who has the great misfortune to be married to an elected official.

As far as I can tell, once she became governor, Sarah Palin should have sat down with her husband and said “now, honey, I know this guy’s a bad guy, I know he’s abused our nephew, I know he’s threatened to kill my dad and my sister, I know he’s driven drunk in his cruiser and broken hunting laws, I know he’s unstable enough to have racked up four marriages and divorces before he’s 40, but I’m the governor now. That means that we have to give up a lot of our legal rights and expectations. I’m now in charge of the state police, and that means that you can’t do anything at all — not even the things that every other citizen of the state can do — that might be perceived as benefiting me in any way. And that includes protecting my family from this nutcase. We just have to live with the fact that we’re going to be surrounded by armed men who very well could be buddies of this psycho, and just hope for the best.”

That, in a nutshell, is nuts.

That, in a nutshell, is what the report of this investigator (an old buddy of Monegan’s) says.

And that, in a word, is bullshit.

The report clearly states that Sarah Palin’s ethical lapse was in not preventing her husband from exercising his legal rights in seeking redress, for not pursuing legal remedies against an individual who had not only threatened, but actually harmed Todd Palin’s family, and had been given less than a slap on the wrist for his misconduct.

Under any reasonable circumstances, the report would be seen as an exoneration of Sarah Palin.

Unfortunately, we’re not in any reasonable circumstances. We’re in the middle of a presidential campaign.

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