November 2005 "Easy Calls"
  • It was no surprise that San Diego Congressman Randy "Duke" Cunningham pleaded guilty to conspiracy and tax charges and resigned his office in tears after admitting he took $2.4 million in bribes to steer defense contracts to the check-writers. It was, however, mighty good news for the country, and one hopes the beginning of just desserts for unethical members of the House of Representatives who have taken full advantage of the ethics holiday on the Hill and the execrable example of GOP leader Tom DeLay to peddle influence without shame or restraint. Cunningham, you may recall, actually lived on a yacht provided to him free of charge by a lobbyist "friend," yet the House Ethics Committee never thought to let him know that this, ah, looked bad. So did other Cunningham tricks, like getting a lobbyist to buy his house for an inflated price, then unload it at a huge cash loss. The investigation into possible bribes engineered by DeLay crony Jack Abramoff has already produced a plea agreement by Abramoff associate Michael Scanlon (who was also once Tom DeLay's P.R. man; what a coincidence!). Scanlon admitted that he and Abramoff gave Ohio Congressman Bob Ney and his staff contributions, expensive trips, tickets to sporting events and concerts, sports arena luxury boxes for fundraisers, golfing weekends and free meals at Abramoff's ritzy restaurant, Signatures. In return Ney, who is chairman of the House Administration Committee, provided "official acts and influence," according to Scanlon's statement. Congressman Ney, who is a good bet to join Cunningham in retirement, the slammer, or both, denies having acted improperly…just as Cunningham did before the noose grew too tight. And after Ney, who knows? Whoever is next, and however many Congressional crooks are unmasked, citizens of every political persuasion should cheer. The climate of contempt for ethics in Washington D.C. has finally reached the critical level where tolerance, inattention and naiveté no longer offer sufficient protection from the harsh light of exposure. It's about time. (11/30/2005)

  • Debra LaFave, the 25 year old attractive blond school teacher who had numerous sexual encounters with a fourteen years old boy in one of her classes, was sentenced to just three years of liberal house arrest as part of a plea bargain that was apparently brokered to save her victim the unpleasantness of a long trial. Thus Lafave's punishment for betraying the trust of a child's parents and satisfying her own sexual desires by exploiting her position as an authority figure and teacher in order to engage in repeated instances of statutory rape is merely the inconvenience of having to be in her home between 10 PM and 6 AM, stay clear of minors and register as a sex offender. The wishes of the victim and his parents certainly ought to have been considered, but in this case the prosecutors sent a terrible message by not seeking prison time. Crime victims always have to suffer in the course of bringing criminals to justice. Murderers aren't able to get easy sentences because the families of the victims need to get on with their lives, and there is little doubt that if Ms. Lafave had been a male teacher who seduced and had sex with a 14 year old girl, prosecutors would have sought, and achieved, a prison sentence for the rapist. There are warped values at work here, not the least of which was reflected by Lafave's lawyer's argument that his client was "too pretty" to go to jail. It is clear that at some level, the court, the prosecutor and even the victim's parents have been swayed by the popular belief that being seduced by a comely female teacher is every teenaged boy's cherished fantasy, and thus Lafave's act is more gift than crime. Lots of childhood fantasies would be damaging and unhealthy if they came true, and we count on adult supervisors, mentors and authority figures to provide protection and guidance. That is their duty to our young, and failing it by using children to act out their own fantasies should incur such serious penalties that the message is clear: this is wrong, and will not be tolerated. LaFave's fate will do more to encourage future teacher-predators than stop them. (11/28/05)

  • Just when the Scoreboard was about to publish its long awaited (at least by the Scoreboard) analysis of the ethics train wreck now called the "C.I.A. Leak Scandal," yet another boxcar jumped the track. This time it was Washington Post investigative reporting icon Bob Woodward, who suddenly revealed that he had learned of Valerie Plame Wilson's undercover status before Robert Novak revealed it in his column, and that he didn't get the information from "Scooter" Libby, Karl Rove or Dick Cheney. In the two years plus that Woodward sat on this, a federal prosecutor was running a multi-million dollar investigation, and Woodward was appearing on news shows describing the controversy as wildly over-blown, performances that we can only now recognize as "self-serving appearances fueled by conflict of interest." Hmmmm…what do we call a citizen who doesn't come forth with material information bearing on a criminal investigation? An obstructer of justice? A coward? No, the answer is "a journalist." Presumably Woodward's source was or wasn't breaking the same federal prohibition against revealing agents' names that "Scooter" Libby was or wasn't breaking. Let's see: Libby is under indictment for misleading investigators about his leak, but Woodward, who decided to simply hide his part of the story entirely rather than dissemble about it, just loses a chunk of his inflated prestige. That doesn't seem fair, does it? Woodward now says that he didn't want to endanger his source's confidentiality. For that motive, which is inextricably connected to Woodward's personal interest in maintaining the high level access that feeds his Washington expose best-sellers, he was satisfied to stand mute and watch dozens of others, including his colleagues, get dragged before a grand jury while millions of dollars of taxpayer money went down a sink-hole. The Scoreboard once was certain that Robert Novak would end up as the biggest miscreant in this fiasco, but now it isn't so sure. (11/22/2005)

  • The roiling judicial ethics story dominating cable news until recently was whether U. S. Supreme Court nominee Joseph Alito should have recused himself from ruling on a case involving a company in which he had an investment interest. Federal Appeals Court judges get to decide whether to recuse themselves based on their own discretion as to whether they can render a fair decision in a particular case. Everyone pretty much agrees that Alito's decision wasn't going to actually affect his finances or the company's, so this is really one of those ....

    "there might be an 'appearance of impropriety' to people who don't really understand what a conflict of interest is, which could make it an ethical violation except that the case had no public visibility so there were hardly any such people for the apparent-but-not-real conflict of interest to appear improper to, which is ironic when you think about it because if the case had been in front of the U. S. Supreme Court it would have had enough visibility that there probably would have been enough such people (who don't really understand what a conflict of interest is) aware of the case for it to rise to the level of a true 'appearance of impropriety,' an irony that would be irrelevant, except that this judge is being considered for the U. S. Supreme Court where such an apparent-but-not-real conflict might arise and he has expressed doubts about Roe v. Wade, so those Democratic Senators who say they won't vote against a nominee for the Court just because he might oppose abortion but who are also in the pocket of advocacy groups who want them to do just that are raising this arcane ethics issue so they can use it to justify their vote against the judge when they vote against him when they really will be doing so because he has expressed doubts about Roe v. Wade (and not because he didn't recuse himself when there was a pseudo-conflict of interest) though even people who don't really understand what a conflict of interest is could figure out that Alito is over-whelmingly qualified to sit on the Supreme Court" ...

    ... situations. Don't you just hate those?

    In other and fewer words, it's a political dispute masquerading as a close technical judicial ethics question. Just for clarification, here's what a clear judicial ethics violation looks like.

    Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Kevin A. Ross, who makes a whopping $149,160 a year, was removed from the bench by the State Commission on Judicial Performance after he hosted two pilots for a possible television series called "Mobile Court," where the T.V. judge would go to the scene of disputes to decide small-claims cases on the spot. In an episode called "Beauty and the Beast," an erotic dancer called Angel Cassidy sued a San Diego strip club for cheating her out of prize money in the "Miss Wet on the Net" contest. Judge Ross heard the complex and potentially precedent-setting case at another strip club complete with all the trimmings: zebra carpet, pulsating neon lights, mirrors, and poles, throbbing and undulating…well, you get the picture. The judge made sure that the plaintiff went into great detail about the wet T-shirt contest she said she deserved to win…just to be sure to he could make a fair ruling, of course.

    OK, contestants: guess the ethical violation! Time's up…what's that? You are correct! Using one's judicial office for personal gain and engaging in conduct that undermines the dignity and integrity of the judiciary!

    Judge Ross had other significant black marks on his record, including lying to the Commission and violating the Constitutional rights of defendants, but the strip club trip would be enough, I think, not only to keep him off the U.S. Supreme Court but also to keep him off any court imaginable, including a tennis court. (11/21/2005)

  • The Scoreboard received a lot of response to its assertion that there is nothing inherently rude about talking on a cell phone in conversational tones in a public place, despite poll results that indicate that such conduct is one of the main behavioral developments that cause Americans to regard their country as getting "ruder." Just so we are clear on where we draw the line: a woman in the Northern Virginia suburbs of Washington D.C. has recently robbed four banks while continuously chatting on her cell phone. Now that's rude. If you are going to rob someone, the least you can do is give them your full attention… (11/13/2005)

  • Regular readers of the Ethics Scoreboard know that it regards negligent misinformation by the media as unethical conduct, especially when it results from laziness, lack of research, sloppy writing or plain stupidity. The recent news media focus on the composition of the U.S. Supreme Court in the wake of President Bush's nominations of judges Roberts, Miers and Alito has been particularly disturbing in this regard, as one can hardly pick up a paper, listen to a news broadcast or surf the internet without "learning" that the justice who replaces Sandra Day O'Connor will determine "whether abortion stays legal" or Roe v Wade is overturned. Other reports discuss the fears that Roe v. Wade will be "repealed," as if the case opinion is a law. To concisely state my response to this: Arrrrgggggghhhhh!!!! No wonder the majority of the American public has the basic understanding of the branches of government of a 5th grade drop-out when the journalists who must report and analyze the work of those branches habitually mislead them. The over-turning of Roe v. Wade, should it occur, would not and could not make abortion illegal. In fact, it would have no immediate effect on the state of abortion's legality at all. It is a profound and inexcusable misrepresentation of the truth for any media report to imply, state or suggest that it would, because Congress and state legislatures, not the Supreme Court, make the laws of the land. The reversal of Roe v. Wade would simply mean that abortion would no longer have the Constitutional status of an absolute right, and that legislatures would be once again permitted to pass laws regulating or prohibiting abortion if, in accordance with our democratic system, that is what the duly elected representatives of the citizenry believed was in the best interest of the country. Does that mean that they would do so? Some legislatures might, but the chances that a reversal of Roe v.Wade would result in abortion in America becoming illegal are something less than the prospects for the immortality of Frosty the Snowman if he took up residence in Barbados. The abortion controversy, in no small part due to Roe v. Wade prematurely ending the democratic debate about its regulation, already disproportionately dominates our political processes. For the journalists to contribute to this damaging state of affairs by warping public debate through their misrepresentation of the meaning of the case is more than bad professional ethics; it is malpractice. (11/13/2005)
  • Judge Walter Steed is a good judge, it is said. The Hildale, Utah judge is also a devoted family man…too devoted, according to Utah's Judicial Conduct Commission, which removed him for practicing polygamy. Steed has three wives, all sisters; one big, happy, illegal family under Utah law. The judge feels it's unfair to take him off the bench for "private conduct" (where have I heard that before?), especially since Utah has but rarely chosen to prosecute the estimated 30,000 polygamists within its borders. The Utah Attorney General is apparently not going after Judge Steed either, so the judge doesn't see why he should have to take off the robes. "As long as I can do my job, why should I?" he is asking. Here's why, your Honor. You took an oath to uphold the laws, not just the ones you agree with, or the ones that are vigorously enforced. Even if polygamy itself wasn't the highly unethical practice that it is, such a blatant disregard for the Utah statute declaring it a felony creates a conflict of interest: you can't be a felon and a judge too.(11/8/2005)

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