I’ve written several posts in this space on the topic of governmental ethics and the often-shifting and occasionally fuzzy line separating personal interest from public good. As I said in a previous post (Government Ethics (Redux)):
“From lowly Soil and Water Conservation District representatives to the President, men and women elevated to elected and appointed positions have fiduciary duties to the public. They exercise and are entrusted with powers we have handed them to take care of the rest of us. This power can be used beneficially for the common good, or it can be abused for all the reasons that gave rise to Shakespeare’s many tragedies.”
Last week the Raleigh News & Observer reported on a legislative ethics opinion that illustrates how frustrating governmental ethics can be.
Rep. Stephen LaRoque requested a formal ethics opinion regarding his ability to sponsor legislation making billboard ownership more profitable by increasing billboards’ visibility. The “problem” is that he owns billboards.
The legal opinion, in essence, said that it was OK. Even though “the bill would provide a reasonably foreseeable financial benefit” to Rep. LaRoque, the facts that he owned “relatively few billboards” and the legislation “would not benefit [him] to a greater extent than other billboard owners,” the ethics rules would allow him to sponsor the legislation.
Let me rephrase the legal opinion. Even though Rep. LaRoque could use his powers as an elected official to directly enhance his personal wealth, it was OK because 1) the legislation wouldn’t enhance it too much and 2) other billboard owners would make more money too.
In the immortal words of Colonel Sherman Potter of M*A*S*H 4077, “horse hockey.”
It’s only coincidental that this example involves billboards. I’m not picking on that industry.
What’s frustrating is that ethics in any profession is not about what feels right and wrong but rather about the strict application of general rules to specific circumstances. In this case, the rules governing the N.C. General Assembly provide an exception that enabled Rep. LaRoque to use his fiduciary powers for his own private gain.
If the billboard industry had contributed $100,000 to LaRoque’s political campaign and then lobbied him to sponsor this bill, the rules would allow it. But if a member of the industry or public handed him a mere $5 bill to vote for the legislation, and he accepted it promising to do just that, both of them could land in a federal penitentiary.
Interestingly, when this legislation was reviewed by the Rules Review Commission, both the chairman (Ralph Walker) and member Faylene Whitaker recused themselves because Mr. Walker leases land for billboards and Ms. Whitaker rents billboards to advertise her business. To them it was a no-brainer, and they didn’t see the need to request an ethics opinion.
I trust Mr. Walker’s and Ms. Whitaker’s gut check much more than I do Rep. LaRoque’s formal opinion. And I wish more local and state officials were equally attuned.
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