Topic: Government & Politics

Congressman Moran and the Postman
(6/7/2004)

In the film noir classic "The Postman Always Rings Twice," the hapless character played by John Garfield (Jack Nicholson in the re-make, you trivia buffs) pulls off a perfect murder but later gets framed for another murder he didn't commit. Justice or injustice? Something similar may be happening to Democratic Congressman Jim Moran of Northern Virginia, who never met a conflict of interest he didn't like. His usual cake-walk to re-election has been endangered by the public revelations by his former pollster that Moran made unspecified "anti-Semitic remarks" in a private meeting. Now Moran, who got in trouble last year by implying that the Iraq war was the result of Jewish influence, is under fire from his Democratic primary opponent, Andrew Rosenberg, who smells blood in the water.

What is Garfield-like about Moran's predicament is that he has proven himself to be ethically untrustworthy beyond all question, and should have been sent packing long ago. Twice he has accepted sweetheart loans from corporate interests seeking his vote on matters near and dear to their hearts, and twice Moran failed to report the loans until after he had delivered his vote, each time explaining that the cash didn't influence his judgement. Sure, Jim. If the House ethics process weren't in a permanent coma, sanctions for Moran would have been all but automatic, as such financial relationships are a per se violation of House ethics standards. And there are scant guarantees that the Congressman won't do it again: he has gambled himself into virtual bankruptcy (his favored form of gambling is day trading), making him inherently vulnerable to the Siren song of quid pro quo-seeking lobbyists. But do the wine-and-Brie liberals of the DC suburbs care that their elected representative is blatantly and habitually broke and on the take? Apparently not. What matters, his opponent hopes, is a private comment made to an employee who is ethically bound to keep confidences.

The pollster, Alan Secrest, is angry at Moran for firing him, so he announced that Moran is a bigot behind closed doors. Secrest, despite Moran's release of a recent e-mail in which Secrest vowed that he would make it "uncomfortable" for Moran if he didn't get his way, has implied that divulging Moran's verbal bigotry was public spirited. This claim is dubious at best, since Secrest was all too happy to aid in the re-election of a congressman who appeared to be selling his votes as long as Moran was willing to pay him.

Secrest's "revelation" is an ethical breach, and is more telling about his character than Moran's. Despite the despicable trend fed by such disgruntled employee authors as Richard Clarke and Paul O'Neill, if comments in a work context are obviously made with the understanding that they are not for public consumption, it is wrong for someone to violate that trust later. Secrest has made a point of noting that, unlike O'Neill and Clarke, he is not profiting by his tales out of school. It seems clear, however, that Secrest is after revenge, not money. If that's what he wants, he benefits by getting it.

All of us (even ethicists!) say things in private that would be embarrassing if put on the front page of the paper. Voters should be very wary of judging candidates by comments that may be off-the-cuff, in jest, ill-considered, or as seems to be the case here, spoken in the heat of an argument. Jim Moran still richly deserves to be voted out of office, but for his lack of ethics, not for his verbal indiscretions in private. If the Secrest incident provokes what near-bribery could not, it will be the height of irony.

John Garfield would sympathize, but anyone interested in ethics in government will just be glad the postman rang twice.

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