Ethics problems in Salem
Years ago, I was a member of an advisory group that reported directly to the U.S. commissioner of internal revenue. It was quite a learning experience, and I think my colleagues on the panel and I contributed to improving tax administration in the federal government.
One of the things that was going on within the IRS at the time was a program in which the top managers of the agency were taking a basic course in ethics, taught by Michael Josephson, a noted guru on the subject. One of the big lessons in that program was a list of ethical fallacies -- a series of rationalizations that people typically use for unethical behavior. I learned that when you hear yourself saying or thinking any of these things, you're on the road to ruin.
All this came to mind on Friday as I read The O's excellent article on the practice among Oregon legislators of putting their family members on their legislative payroll, regardless of whether they actually do meaningful work to justify their pay, or whether they even show up in Salem during the legislative session. One nepotist has on his staff his wife, who lives in Las Vegas year-'round and doesn't leave there to perform her work as the legislator's aide. Outrageous.
But these practices, which have long been common knowledge, have never caused much serious uproar until the recent flap about Rep. Kelly Wirth, whose trials and tribulations include alleged meth possession and serious injuries after being mowed down by a car driven by the girlfriend of an alleged lover of Wirth. Wirth, whose mother was on her House office payroll, tried to spend the last of her clerical budget by giving her mom a huge raise just as Wirth was resigning her House seat in scandal and disgrace.
Many legislators with family members on the pad are hoping the whole matter will die down now that Wirth is gone. But the justifications they offer for allowing their employment practices to continue are straight off the list of ethical no-no's that Josephson warned the IRS about:
"I've got it coming to me." The state solons all say, and it's probably true, that they don't make enough while they're in Salem as part-timers to keep food on the table, clothes on their backs, and roofs over their heads. They put their loved ones on the payroll so that they can make ends meet while their paying, private-sector jobs are on hold.
Here's what Josephson says about that:
People who feel they are overworked or underpaid rationalize that minor "perks" -- such as acceptance of favors, discounts or gratuities -- are nothing more than fair compensation for services rendered. This is also used as an excuse to abuse sick time, insurance claims, overtime, personal phone calls and personal use of office supplies.As the grownups told us over and over when we were kids, two wrongs don't make a right.
"It doesn't hurt anybody." The legislators note that the practice of paying family members for work they don't do doesn't hurt the state overall, because their families make enormous sacrifices on behalf of the state. That won't fly with Josephson:
Used to excuse misconduct, this rationalization falsely holds that one can violate ethical principles so long as there is no clear and immediate harm to others. It treats ethical obligations simply as factors to be considered in decision-making, rather than as ground rules. Problem areas: asking for or giving special favors to family, friends or public officials; disclosing nonpublic information to benefit others; using one's position for personal advantage."Everybody's doing it." This one's all over the Oregonian story. Paying one's spouse or other relatives for work that can't be accounted for (and in some cases, that doesn't exist) is said to be "a time-honored" tradition in the state Capitol. Josephson says:
This is a false, "safety in numbers" rationale fed by the tendency to uncritically treat cultural, organizational or occupational behaviors as if they were ethical norms, just because they are norms.No-show jobs for legislators' families, and jobs in which they don't have to account for themselves, are unethical. They send the wrong message to managers throughout state and local government, and they set a horrible example for the rest of the state's residents, particularly younger ones. If the legislators are underpaid, they need to have the guts to vote themselves an above-board raise. If their family members are state employees, they need to fill out timecards and be accountable for real work that is assigned to them -- just as any other employee would.
The current "system" is just another Kelly Wirth waiting to happen -- or more likely, another Kelly Wirth that's already been happening for a long time, but is yet to be uncovered. It's... well, shabby.