April 2006 "Easy Calls"
  • One would think that Congressmen who fume about countries like Libya serving as chair of the U.N. Human Rights committee might not need a lot of coaxing to conclude that maybe Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) should step down as chair of the House's always ridiculous ethics committee. But no: it took articles and editorials in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times and dozens of other papers, plus complaints from ethics watchdog organizations to make members question whether Mollohan was an appropriate individual to fill the position…despite the fact that

    • He used his seat on the House Appropriations Committee to steer around $250 million to five nonprofit organizations that he set up…
    • The non-profits were run predominantly by his friends, supporters and campaign contributors, who then paid their salaries with tax-payer money…
    • Some of those non-profit pals also joined with Mollohan in lucrative real estate investments that netted him big profits, and…
    • His real estate holdings went from a few hundred thousand dollars in value to multi-millions in value over a four year period…
    • The Congressman repeatedly failed to disclose the extent of his assets, loans, investments and financial dealings as required by law.

    Now, the Congressman may yet have a good explanation for all this, but House ethics rules demand that members avoid the "appearance of impropriety," and if this doesn't appear improper, then Duke Cunningham is Mother Theresa. Thus Mollohan's public statement while stepping down is in equal portions odd, disingenuous, and hilarious.

    "While I am confident that any charges or allegations that this organization [the conservative watchdog group The National Legal and Policy Center] and its Republican allies make against me will be as meritless and, indeed, as frivolous as those they have made thus far, they must be responded to fully," Mr. Mollohan wrote in a letter to the House Democratic leader, Nancy Pelosi. Someone may want to give a dictionary to the good Congressman so he can look up frivolous; the accusations against him may prove meritless, but frivolous they are not. And if the facts show what they appear to show, Mollohan may want to use that dictionary to look up conflicts, patronage, influence- peddling, enrichment, and ethics. Also the phrases beyond suspicion and role model, which are two things the chair of an ethics committee must be, and what Mollohan clearly isn't.

  • After it became clear that the jig was up, and police were on to their scam to get gifts from sentimental strangers by claiming that they were the impoverished parents of sextuplets, Kris and Sarah Everson apologized. "We didn't mean to hurt anybody by doing what we did," Kris Everson said. "We did it out of necessity for financial reasons." Ah, yes…the "out of necessity for financial reasons" rationalization. "We didn't mean to hurt anybody by stealing their money, of course. That phony web site we set up asking for cash and gift cards was just an attempt to make a better life for ourselves. How can you fault us for that?" How indeed. In addition to the obvious observation that this "apology" was also inspired by perceived necessity rather than remorse, the Scoreboard foresees a surge in the popularity of the Everson's meritless but seductive ethical argument. It is, after all, the essence of the argument being made by demonstrators on behalf of illegal immigrants. They crossed the border in violation of U.S. law and used taxpayer funds "out of necessity for financial reasons." And that makes it all right. At least the Eversons are apologizing. [4/19/2006]

  • Some conservatives are fretting that the ascension of Katie Couric to the CBS Evening News represents the enshrinement of an unapologetic liberal partisan to a prominent news post requiring neutrality. It is a bizarre complaint. True, Couric's prosecutorial tone and contemptuous facial expressions while interviewing conservatives on the Today Show left little question where her political sympathies lie. So what? Anyone who has followed Walter Cronkite's pronouncements since leaving the anchor's chair knows that his political views make Couric look like Phyllis Schlafley, and Uncle Walter didn't seem to do the nation any harm while telling America "the way it was" for so many years. Reporter neutrality is a myth; all reporters have opinions, and their opinions inevitably influence how they present the news. It is far better for the audience to know about a reporter's biases than to be deceived into believing that they miraculously have none. Besides that, Couric is hardly the first national anchor who had displayed clear liberal leanings before taking the job: Dan Rather and Sam Donaldson wore their political views on their sleeves while on the White House beat only slightly less prominently than Helen Thomas. The pretense of journalistic neutrality was always a disingenuous sham. Let reporters call it the way they see it, and be open with us about their world views that may have colored their analyses. Only then can we truly judge how "fair and balanced" (to quote Fox News' tongue-in-cheek motto) they are. [4/17/2006]

  • I'm sure it's too late to persuade him, but someone needs to tell Andy Rooney that being a professional curmudgeon doesn't give one license to behave like a mean-spirited, inconsiderate jerk to a new colleague. Discussing the imminent assumption of Today sprite Katie Couric to the hallowed anchor's chair at the CBS Evening News with Don Imus, Rooney said: "I'm not enthusiastic about it. I think everybody likes Katie Couric. I mean how can you not like Katie Couric? But I don't know anybody at CBS News who is pleased that she's coming here." A little Golden Rule music please! Andy, remember when you got a new job? Being all nervous about new co-workers, succeeding at new challenges, being accepted? Would you have liked it if someone told a national radio audience that nobody was pleased that you were joining the team? Would that have made you feel good, confident, supported? No? Then show a little empathy, fairness and class by giving Katie Couric the chance to get off to a good start. Rooney also chose to take pot shots at Dan Rather when he was on the way out the same door Katie is coming in. Here's an Easy Call: this is just not a very nice man. [4/17/2006]
  • How quickly we forget. Back in Newt Gingrich's salad days as Speaker of the House, a major controversy erupted when an over zealous Gingrich-hating citizen illegally taped a cell phone conversation between Newt and John Boehner, now the House GOP Majority Leader. The wiretapper turned the tape over to Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Washington) and he sent it to the New York Times. Now, almost a decade later, a federal appeals court has ruled that McDermott violated federal law by doing so. He's been ordered to pay damages, but another appeal is possible, and McDermott's lawyers, joined by new organizations who like to believe the fiction that an illegally obtained piece of information is suddenly cleansed when it falls into a reporter's hands, have some First Amendment arguments that might yet prevail. Ethically, it doesn't matter. McDermott's actions in distributing an illegally taped private phone conversation in order to embarrass a political opponent was an indisputably rotten thing to do, even if it is eventually found to be a legal rotten thing to do. [4/5/2006]

  • Here's a real easy call: Justice Scalia needs a vacation. He also needs to own up to a pretty egregious lapse in taste and judgement, when he recently made a crude Sicilian gesture accompanied by an even cruder Italian epithet in response to a reporter's question. Worse, he did this in a cathedral while attending a special Mass for lawyers. When a reporter for the Boston Herald asked Scalia what his response is to critics who might question his impartiality as a judge, the controversial Supreme Court Justice said, "To my critics, I say, 'Vaffanculo!'" and flicked his right hand out from under his chin. "Vaffanculo," for those of you who do not have an Italian grandfather, means either "Up yours!" or "Fuck you!" depending on the translator. The gesture, which can mean a lot of things, most of them not very nice, was captured on film. Scalia chastised the Herald for characterizing it as an obscene gesture, telling the paper that its staff had been watching too many "Sopranos" episodes. But Scalia's Italian undercuts his quibbles. Obviously he behaved crudely and inappropriately (and knew it: "You're not going to print that, are you?" he reportedly said to the photographer who snapped a picture of his Sicilian chin-flick ). The ethical thing for the Justice to do would be to stop blaming reporters and to apologize. Supreme Court Justices are supposed to exemplify good public behavior, which includes dignity, decorum and civility, and integrity, which includes taking responsibility for mistakes. We can guess how you feel about all the barbs aimed your way, Mister Justice; you really don't have to be so explicit.

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