Earlier this week I wrote about ethics laws affecting local governing boards. On Friday I was in Raleigh where the News & Observer ran the front page banner headline “51 Charges for Former Easley Aide.”
I met Easley aide Ruffin Poole briefly only once. I have dealt with him on three or four matters over the years, but only by phone or letter. I can’t even recall what those matters were. I do recall, however, that he was a likeable person.
The N&O article led me to suspect prosecutorial overkill. Bribery. Mail fraud. Extortion. Racketeering. Money laundering. But with the help of the internet and my law school classmate, Mark Finkelstein, I pulled the 64 page indictment.
From paragraph to paragraph I winced and cringed. A Wilmington developer and financier who flew Poole to Costa Rica every year in a private jet. The same developer cutting Poole sweetheart deals in several coastal developments where his risks were non-existent but exorbitant profits were quick and guaranteed. Money channeled back to Poole indirectly through unrelated family businesses. The business relationship unreported on annual ethics disclosures.
And throughout it all, Poole was using his power as the governor’s right hand man to lessen the time it took for the developers to obtain permits from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources. Using his power to ensure favorable treatment by employees reviewing permit applications. Using his power to shorten the time it would take to get his investment return.
Whether a public official operates on a local, state or federal level, the precepts of ethical conduct remain the same.
In cities, hamlets, counties, congressional districts and states across the country, we entrust average citizens with great power to look after the rest of us. The operative word is “entrust.” An elected or appointed official is a fiduciary of that power just as a bank officer is a fiduciary of customers’ money.
The power to control the levers of government is the most sacred power a democracy bestows. Abuse of that power is not defined by the stupidity of an official’s decisions or the repercussions of his or her actions. Abuse of entrusted power is marked, foremost, by whether the action was intended for self benefit.
If the indictment allegations are true, Poole sold more than his soul. He sold his sacred office.
It’s easy to villainize officials who abuse power when the dynamics are never so black and never so white as we pretend.
Elected officials soon discover that power is a necessary tool placed at their disposal, just as a mechanic keeps a wrench on the shelf. Power is how a congressman gets grandmother her social security check. Power is how a council member gets constituents’ potholes repaired. Power is a way to help other citizens. Democracy cannot function without it.
But the slope is greasy. Power is how a victorious candidate in an expensive election can repay a supporter with a prestigious board appointment. Power is how friends are hired and former law partners are appointed to judgeships, none of which is inherently unethical.
It’s not that power is corrupting as much as it is seductive and blinding.
Government officials are occasionally caught in that common political vortex where the circular currents on the outer edges are slow, but with each revolution they get tugged ever closer to the center where the currents are swifter and stronger and escape is impossible as they are sucked faster and deeper into the abyss.
What started as kindnesses from wealthy friends was arguably just that. What was routine political assistance with a cumbersome, labyrinthine state bureaucracy was possibly nothing more. But somewhere in the process, when Poole’s own money and interests became entangled, he crossed a line. A serious line.
Codes of ethics remind those entrusted with power – just as they remind those entrusted with money – what their duties are and to whom their duties run. They are written to tell us which lines are clear and how to recognize the ones that are blurry.
The allegations are meticulous and persuasive. They indicate he knowingly crossed the line, knowingly abused his power, and knowingly tried to cover his tracks. It’s easy to channel the anger felt by citizens who have a right to expect much more from their government. But there’s also a sad, personal tragedy hidden in this narrative.
The political class has responded with expected sanctimony. But the better response is less theatrical. The better response is to acknowledge that all humans are capable of intentional as well as unintentional wrong, but constant reminders through codes of ethics and education regarding fiduciary duties keep all of us – attorneys, accountants, real estate brokers, journalists, bankers, planners, physicians and, of course, government officials – mindful.