Topic: Government & Politics

An Ethical Man Messes Up
(6/16/2004)

Is Ralph Nader an ethical person? By any yardstick, yes. He has been a dedicated social activist who has never sought to benefit personally from his various crusades. He is honest, and tells the truth as he perceives it. He genuinely cares about others.

Are there a lot of powerful people in the Democratic Party and the media who are eager to see Nader's presidential campaign falter? Absolutely. Are some of these driving the publication of the revelation that Nader's campaign is using facilities belonging to a charity, in likely violation of ethics rules and campaign laws? Probably.

Does that mean that we should ignore the ethical implications of Nader's conduct?

Absolutely not.

Although most people regard this kind of ethical violation as a "technicality," it is far more than that. Running for President is a principled act in Nader's case, but it is still a political one. Charities raise money specifically because they assert in legally binding documents that they are pursuing educational, philanthropic or charitable activities that the U.S. government subsidizes not only by allowing them to be tax exempt, but also by allowing individuals and organizations that contribute money to a charity to deduct the amount of donations from their taxable income. In a way all of us pay for charities, on the theory that their work benefits society, the community, and the nation.

The charity that is now housing Nader's campaign, Citizen Watch, was formed by Nader himself. Non-profit charitable organizations are prohibited from engaging in political (as opposed to "educational") activities, although the IRS is ridiculously lax in enforcing the difference. A direct alliance with a political candidate is too far over the line to ignore, however, and Nader's explanation that Citizen Watch is nothing more than a landlord (his presidential campaign rents an office out of the charity's complex) doesn't erase the impropriety of the relationship. In ethics, appearances count. He formed the charity, and the charity takes contributions to support its educational activities, not to support Nader's run for the White House. His campaign is now linked in space and contact to the charity.

Nader says that office space is tight, and the space was the best and cheapest available. Did he pay top dollar for the offices? Would another renter have paid more? Would the charity have been just as willing to rent space to the Bush campaign? Specualtion on these and other legitimate questions fuel the controversy.

Nader holds others to a high legal and ethical standard; that's his self-appointed position. He, of all people, shouldn't be using technicalities to avoid IRS regulations and election laws. He has earned the right to say that he made a misjudgment and be believed, but he must also vacate the offices and devote some quality thought to why the appearance of impropriety is damaging to perceptions of integrity, and why perceived unethical conduct is especially offensive when it comes at the hands of an ethical public figure.

We forgive you, Ralph. Now get out.

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