How hard can it be for an elected official to “just say no” when it comes to taking money or other valuable stuff in some shady deal? After all these years, it seems like a no brainer: just walk away, as fast as you can, from someone waving a fistful of Benjamins or glittery trinkets at you. Right?
Sadly, some public officials in the District of Columbia and the State of Virginia missed that memo. The roster of D.C. officials and staff caught-up in corruption cases is astonishingly long; some are already serving time, others may well wind up behind bars. Across the river, behold the tawdry spectacle of former Virginia Governor Robert McDonnell’s impending trial on charges that he and his wife took lavish gifts from a businessman who received official favors in exchange for all that stuff.
Why do otherwise-smart people have such a hard time resisting this particularly risky form of temptation? While every case has its own unique weirdness (Maureen McDonnell’s shopping trips, Harry Thomas’s motorcycle), the scandal dogging D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray seems to be an object lesson in the ethical enigmas that arise when otherwise-sensible leaders fall prey to the intoxicating power of political influence.
Let’s start with Uncle Earl.
An “enigma” is something mysterious, puzzling or difficult to understand. With that definition, “Uncle Earl” is a total enigma.
“Uncle Earl” is the code name that Mayor Gray and businessman Jeffrey E. (for “Earl”) Thompson agreed to use when referring to Thompson so that then-Mayor Adrian Fenty would not find out that Thompson was supporting Gray. That’s the story, at least. It’s complicated, sort of. Fenty was then mayor and running for re-election, and Thompson had supported Fenty. Now Thompson was supporting Gray, but didn’t want Fenty to know that.
The ethical enigma of the Uncle Earl gambit seems obvious: a public figure with nothing to hide should not play games to keep something secret from a competitor. The lame effort to keep Fenty in the dark about Thompson’s support for Gray seems like a very dumb idea, and now it becomes evidence of a character flaw in Gray, a willingness to conceal the truth, a lie that might have seemed small at the time but that now becomes a significant ethical breach quite possibly signifying even more serious dishonesty.
Thompson has now pleaded guilty to wide-ranging crimes of corruption in funneling funds illegally to the 2010 Gray mayoral campaign.
Gray says that he did nothing wrong. He labels as “lies” the statements made about him in the “statement of offenses” that Thompson signed as part of his plea bargain. Gray deserves the presumption of innocence, and he most certainly will have a day in court. The only question is whether that will come before or after the next mayoral election.
I cannot comment on the mayoral campaign or candidates, nor can I comment on whether Mayor Gray will be indicted and convicted. All of that is up to the voters, the prosecutors, the legal process.
What I can say is this: public officials have a large duty to be ethical role models, to avoid even the appearance of unethical or illegal activity. Sadly, too many public officials seem ignorant of these responsibilities.
I’ve known Vincent Gray for a long time, long before he became a public official. Trinity students and alumnae going back across the years remember him for his leadership and advocacy on behalf of students with disabilities through his work with the DC ARC, Covenant House and other organizations. I was happy to work with him when he became D.C. Council Chair when he pursued legislative initiatives to expand Pre-K opportunities in D.C. I was delighted when he became mayor because of all that I knew about his long and strong devotion to improving the lives of D.C. citizens. As mayor he has championed scholarships for Trinity students and a broad range of economic development opportunities that benefit the citizens and institutions of D.C. I am disappointed that this great track record now suffers a serious and potentially devastating shadow of corruption and deceit. For the sake of the city and all who depend on its vitality, I hope the processes required to determine guilt or innocence will proceed quickly so that the city can keep moving forward.
Beyond all of that, we also need to consider the sobering facts about the ethical challenges facing public officials not only here but in just about every location where politics and money play large roles in gaining and keeping power. In all of the debates about educational reform today, there’s almost no discussion of education about ethical choices and the role of schools in building a culture of honor and integrity. So much emphasis is put on rote learning for standardized testing that there’s almost no place in the curriculum for the kind of deep and reflective development of mind and spirit that must occur for large ethical formation.
Here at Trinity, we devote a good deal of time and effort to reinforcing the fundamental concepts of the Honor System. Every student takes the basic pledge to uphold the standards of honor against which lying, stealing and cheating are completely unacceptable. Yet, even here, with all the attention we pay to the ideals of honor and integrity, we often feel that we have not done enough, and we know we can always do more.
The Original Sin was not really about eating the apple, but rather, lying about it. Oh, and blaming somebody else for the misdeed. The most fundamental ethical lesson we must reinforce at every level of education is the absolute need to take ownership of one’s own actions, to tell the truth and live with the consequences of the truth. Imagine how much more effective political systems could be if elected officials could truly exemplify these fundamental lessons.
It’s not that hard: the next time some creepy “Uncle Earl” fiction oozes into the conversation, just walk away. Fast. Run. Better to lose the election than lose your soul.