“Neither the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt.” -Samuel Adams
If it isn’t illegal, then it isn’t unethical. That is the mentality many elected officials have adopted in our state and nation. Politicians wheel and deal in the gray area between right and wrong, craftily balancing on the line of legitimacy, careful not to slip a foot into the land of illegality. They carelessly push the limits of right and wrong with virtually no regard for what is actually right and wrong. When it becomes our goal as public officials to simply avoid activity classified as a criminal offense against public law, and we ignore our moral obligation to hold ourselves to a different, more stringent standard, we erode the public trust and become a significant threat to the stability of our democracy. Unfortunately, recent comments by our Governor demonstrate this skewed mindset that many have used as justification for their actions.
I literally sat with my mouth agape as I read a quote from Alabama Governor Robert Bentley’s recent press conference. We have all heard the audio recordings of intimate conversations between the Governor and another woman who is not his wife. We have heard the allusions from the Governor himself to a physical relationship between he and a woman that is not his wife. Yet, he stood at a microphone recently at a crowded press conference and actually said the words, “I’ve done nothing – absolutely nothing – that is illegal or unethical.”
Every fiber of my moral being was offended at the words he spoke. While the illegal portion of his statement is still being investigated, unless the audio recordings are one day proven false, the unethical portion of his actions has been splayed across the Internet and national news enough for everyone to know he has most certainly acted unethically, immorally, and without regard for the sanctity of the office he holds.
The fact that he can say with a straight face that he has not acted unethically reveals the semantic game public officials often play to justify their questionable actions. When leaders decide to parse the meaning of criminal and ethical behavior when deciding on a particular action we lose our virtue, our freedom, and our greatness. Character matters, a great society cannot remain so without a common sense of decency, especially amongst leadership.
We need leadership that holds truth inviolable. We need leaders that value honesty, integrity, loyalty, and respect for others above all else. That is ethical behavior. Ethical behavior is not about obeying man’s law, ethical behavior is about being a better person. About having a moral standard that governs everything you do. Doing the right thing even when no one is watching, doing the right thing even when you think no one is listening.
If I know my neighbor is elderly, ailing, and struggling to care for his wife who has progressing Alzheimer’s and I do nothing to help meet their basic needs I have not violated state or federal law. If I fail to show my children physical love and affection I have not violated state or federal law. If I lie to my husband and engage in an extramarital affair I have not violated state or federal law. But in each case I have most certainly violated the basic moral and ethical standards of conduct that distinguish right and wrong in human action. I have revealed my character as self-serving and weak. And I have failed in my moral obligation as a neighbor, mother, and wife.
Unfortunately, many elected officials do a quick-footed dance through questionable areas of personal activity with their biggest concern being the avoidance of prosecution. When public officials become more concerned about violating the law than violating the public trust they no longer serve the public, but themselves. We are too great a people to accept such disingenuous leadership. But unfortunately we have accepted it for generations. There are numerous examples of both local and national leaders, from all political parties, who have acted in ways unbecoming and who, instead of being chastised by the electorate have been given a pass. Seriously, some have even gone to jail for criminal offenses and enjoyed a baffling political comeback so perhaps I should not be so surprised that we turn a blind eye to infidelity.
I was sworn in to the Montgomery County Commission in February 2014. Immediately after being sworn in I was told I must participate in a mandatory training program coordinated by the Association of County Commissions of Alabama (ACCA) intended to educate new Commissioners on their role and responsibility. The first class I took was entitled “Ethics for Public Officials.” This class was facilitated by staff from the ACCA, the Alabama Ethics Commission, and a local attorney. One of the topics of discussion was the differentiation between an act being unethical and an act being in violation of the law. Unfortunately, this is a distinction elected officials insist upon using as their standard for decision-making. Is what I am about to do illegal, or simply unsavory?
A portion of the Ethics training was led by Sonny Brasfield, Executive Director of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama. As someone who has worked in and around Alabama politics for years, and has conducted numerous ethics training courses, I consider Mr. Brasfield an expert in this area. And because he summed up the truth so clearly and succinctly, I am going to quote Mr. Brasfield’s introduction to the discussion on ethics:
“The Alabama Ethics Law is a criminal statute, which outlines behaviors that are legally permissible as well as those behaviors that are illegal. The illegal behaviors, if prosecuted, will result in fines, imprisonment or both.
Following the Alabama Ethics Law does not mean that a public official or employee is acting in an ethical manner. In fact, there is no question that an individual can participate in unethical behavior without being guilty of violating the Alabama Ethics Law.
Simply put, this statute is improperly named. It is not an ethics law at all. The statute governs criminal behavior by public officials. As such, employees and elected officials who wish to act ethically must look beyond the Alabama Ethics Law for guidance. “
“Simply put, this statue is improperly named.” Excellent point as the Alabama Ethics Law, intended to define moral behavior, has actually become an excuse for public officials to act inappropriately. If I do this questionable act, will I be breaking the law? If not, I am going to do it. When my children are caught doing something wrong and I make them admit their wrongdoing and apologize, oftentimes, they are not sorry for their actions at all — they are simply sorry they got caught. My goal as their mother is to help cultivate in my children a spirit of consciousness that will automatically convict them if what they are about to do is wrong. When they want to take two pieces of candy although their teacher clearly stated for them to take just one, they will pause before committing the act and consider if it is right or wrong even if no one will ever know. As elected officials we are no different and should be governed by an internal moral compass.
A different standard should be used beyond a consideration of the legality of an action. Yes, I can do this and it is not in violation of the law. However, is it the right thing to do? How will my actions impact my family, my colleagues, my constituents? What if my actions were written about on the front page of the newspaper? Is what I am about to do really necessary? My husband always likes to remind me that elected officials either eat well or sleep well. I chose sleep.
We need ethical leadership. Leaders who purpose to rise above what is expected and pursue what is greater. We do not want leadership that is only concerned with how to avoid jail time, we deserve leaders who look beyond the law and pursue the common good.
Ronda M. Walker is a member of the Montgomery County Commission, a wife, and a mother of four.