Topic: Government & Politics

A Future Gift Is Still a Gift
(4/2/2004)

Montana Governor Judy Martz has provided a textbook example of why it is that ethics rules can do nothing if the people supposedly governed by them are without an ethical compass.

Montana forbids its officials from accepting gifts over $50. It's one of the more strict states, actually, but the logic behind all state gift rules is the same: it looks bad for officials to be accepting expensive gifts one minute and making decisions that might benefit the giver the next, and sometimes, it is bad. Better to just eschew all the shiny gewgaws, prime location tickets and cashmere coats. The public shouldn't see their elected leaders getting rich and comfy from gifts that often, sometimes, or always (depending on your level of cynicism) are designed to lay the foundation of a quid pro quo.

So when a William Meeker of Carpinteria, California purchased a painting by one of Governor Martz's favorite artists for $3250 and announced his attention to give it to her as a token of her esteem, she had a problem. She really likes the painting, but there's that darned ethics rule. Then it hit her: why not, as she phrased it, "put it on display in my office for now" and take it as a gift after she leaves office! That way, she gets the painting without violating any state edicts. Perfect.

No, not perfect. The Governor's scheme avoids a violation of the gift law, but ethically it's all the same. She takes possession of the painting (it hangs in her office), knowing that ownership is inevitable, as long as she doesn't do anything to raise the ire of Mr. Meeker. She might even give him a big hug right away. The law says he's still the owner, but every shred of the spirit of the gift prohibition is gone.

This is exactly the sort of thinking that allows the Tyco looters to claim that "they broke no laws," the kind of literal and legalistic maneuvering that obsessed the schemers at Enron. Where ethics is concerned, "technically ethical" is an oxymoron. Only truly ethical will do.

Tell Mr. Meeker thanks but no thanks, Governor. He needs to keep his painting, and you need to remember that leaders set the ethical standards for those they lead.

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