Topic: Government & Politics

Whitewater and Iran Contra: Appearance of Bias
(3/9/2004)

Ethics Scoreboard, as anyone who spends any time here will quickly detect, is not fond of the popular tactic of attributing every criticism or negative ruling to bias. The fact is that ethical professionals work to keep their biases in check, withdrawing from an assignment when they feel bias would prevent a fair decision, or be legitimately…that's legitimately, now…perceived by others as tainting the process [See Hunting Ethics]

But Democrats are right on the money to detect bias in the incomprehensible rulings of the Special Division of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, a three judge panel charged with the task of deciding whether federal employees who have to hire attorneys while they are being investigated by Special Prosecutors get reimbursed by the government. The three judge panel seems to feel that the Iran-Contra targets deserve re-imbursement for legal costs, but the Whitewater-Lewinsky cast does not.

Under a 1982 law, public officials pulled into investigations but never charged with crimes can be reimbursed for legal bills if they show that a career prosecutor would not have pursued a similar investigation or delved as deeply. The court says that Iran-Contra meets this standard, but the Clinton Follies do not.

The court's reasoning, which is hard to fathom, is irrelevant. This decision looks biased, even if it isn't. The distinction the court claims to see justifying different treatment of the two situations is microscopic next to the distinction everyone else sees: one was an investigation of Republican, the other, of Democrats. In the interest of fairness, integrity, and the perception of justice, either both groups of petitioners should be reimbursed legal expenses, or neither. When the appearance of impropriety and bias gets this glaring, fixing it becomes the top priority.

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