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Government Ethics (Redux)

12/06/2010

             Last winter I wrote a series of posts on ethics in government, one of which was about former Governor Mike Easley’s aide, Ruffin Poole.  Today, let’s talk about Mike.

             If you came to the party late, here’s the narrative.  Mike Easley was a young Brunswick County district attorney who made his name and reputation prosecuting politically corrupt members of his own party in the 1980s before running for U.S. Senate in 1990, a race he lost in the primary to Harvey Gantt.  He was elected Attorney General in 1992 as a crusading “top cop” of state law enforcement, then moved into the Governor’s mansion in 2001, winning in part on his reputation for not caving or pandering to partisan political pressures and his reputation as being tough on crime.

             But power is an insidious thing.  Hearing citizens call you “Mr. Governor” is soothing to the same ego that it unhealthily inflates, like a cancer causing destructive cell growth.  Bended knee supplications from powerful legislators are as gratifying as they are corrupting as your brain gets subtly confused and disoriented, twisting appeals to the authority of the office you temporarily hold into appeals made to you, personally.

             And there is a difference.

              It’s not that you’re a bad person.  You’re a good person in a culture where effectiveness requires influence in appropriate doses, but when the equilibrium is lost, influence and power can be like kryptonite to your ethical compass.

             Easley’s problems started with the woman he shares morning coffee with, his wife Mary.  First it was her trips to France and Italy at taxpayer expense, including chauffeured Mercedes limousines that cost tens of thousands of dollars each on trips that were only marginally justified.  Then it was her appointment to N.C. State University to run a campus speaker’s series under the protection of an $850,000 five year contract.

            But we knew the Governor had lost his ethical balance as well when public outrage was palpable yet they both were unrepentant and arrogant, refusing to acknowledge both the problem and the perception of the problem and hiring legal counsel to defend her contract.  They just didn’t get it, and the rest of us were slowly realizing that the man who had once been our favorite crusader against governmental corruption had himself become seduced by the Dark Side.

             Then other stories and allegations floated to the surface of the pond where scum typically can be found. The Governor had been ferried across the state on unreported personal and political trips by wealthy and influential friends who themselves were rewarded with prestigious political positions.  Awarding supporters with political appointments is routine and ethical.  If the alternative is appointing your political opponents then positions are left vacant.  But there are ethical lines that shouldn’t be crossed, and the longer you are in office the worse your eyesight becomes and the blurrier those lines appear.

             In Easley’s case it was what seemed to be the blatant quid pro quo of appointing his political supporter (and pilot) McQueen Campbell to the board of trustees of Campbell’s alma mater, N.C. State, and then approaching him as board chair about his wife being hired – at an outrageous and unsupportable salary – to a job that in any other university the person would receive, at most, at an assistant professor’s pay grade.

             Feeling the political pressure in a world where university funding is a political decision, the chancellor agreed.  The appointment, however, was short-lived.  Even the governor’s most open-minded political supporters winced and cringed when the man who wielded the largest lever in the state placed it beneath the political fulcrum to leverage hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars for his household’s benefit.

             In full disclosure, I liked Mike Easley and supported him in every campaign from 1990 to 2004, even holding a fundraiser in my home for him that year. I knew McQueen Campbell as a hard working and kind person.  Nonetheless, I was among those whose constant cringing gave me shoulder cramps. Yet, in a strange way I see both of them as victims.  Victims of the political culture that grinds up the best among us – Republicans and Democrats – and spits them back out with brands of shame.  Power is an addictive narcotic that leaves bodies in the political streets in red and blue states in equal numbers.

             Unless you have quit reading political news (and I wouldn’t blame you if you had), two weeks ago Governor Easley entered what is called an Alford Plea in state court for failing to file accurate campaign reports.  He was fined $1,000, received no prison time, and the federal prosecutor agreed to end his investigation as well.

             Don’t jump to the conclusion that this was backroom political deal making.  The federal prosecutor who joined in the plea was a Republican appointed by President Bush.  And the special prosecutor on the state claims was a Republican district attorney from Rowan County.  A full and successful prosecution would have been the reputation-maker of either attorney’s lifetime.

             But – and trust me on this – if both prosecutors agreed to this minor deal after interviewing hundreds of witnesses and combing through thousands of emails and other documents, it’s because they truly believed that the facts and the law were inconclusive and only supported the deal reached, and anything else might have taken months to prepare and weeks to try at the risk of a resounding and embarrassing “not guilty.” It didn’t help that an inexplicable statute gave later immunity to someone who testifies before the State Board of Elections.

             But the point, nonetheless, remains.  From lowly Soil and Water Conservation District representatives to the President, men and women elevated to elected and appointed positions have fiduciary duties to the public.  They exercise and are entrusted with powers we have handed them to take care of the rest of us. This power can be used beneficially for the common good, or it can be abused for all the reasons that gave rise to Shakespeare’s many tragedies.

             The problem is that political power is like Frodo’s ring. When you possess it, it consumes you in ways you don’t understand, and it works its black magic before you realize it’s happening. All we can do is to be vigilant and to keep reminding ourselves of the weakness of the human spirit and the dangers inherent in power itself.

             Our faith in our own cities and counties as well as our state and nation depends upon it.

               To read previous blog posts, continue to scroll down or click on a category of interest in the right hand column.  To be alerted when a new post is published, simply click the “sign me up!” button above.  If you learned something, please forward this link to others who also might benefit.]

2 Comments leave one →
  1. monroe pannell permalink
    12/06/2010 4:45 pm

    Tom -this was well done. I remember when the Mary Easley story first came to light. I took a bit of a “holier than thou” attitude in that I said to my law partner that it would have never crossed our puny little minds to offer a job to our respective spouses if we were in a similar situation. However you have put it into context a bit by reminding us how the corrupting influence of power can slip up on us. Thankfully I have never had that opportunity. I did feel sorry for the Governor and perhaps with your insight I understand what may have happened to him.

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  1. Colonel Sherman Potter’s Commentary on Legislative “Ethics” « North Carolina Legal Landscapes

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