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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on November 19, 2005 1:58 PM. The previous post in this blog was Lesson learned. The next post in this blog is "They didn't have to say anything". Many more can be found on the main index page or by looking through the archives.

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Saturday, November 19, 2005

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.

Comments (8)

Although I often find myself in agreement with your views, particularly when it comes to condo subsidies, in this case we veer apart. Did the idiot Wirth try to milk the system? Obviously.

But is there anything wrong with hiring family onto staff? In my view, no - not inherently. If you take in an outsider, you're going to have to pay them for overtime, and you're going to have to pay for other benefits. Different rules apply for family members.

Different rules apply for family members.

That depends entirely on the job said family member is performing. If s/he is in an hourly, non-exempt position, then they most certainly qualify for federal and state overtime benefits. However, if the relative is a salaried, exempt aide or "staffer," then that person's pay is doled out under a different set of laws and guidelines.

Nepotism is a very grey area, employment-wise, and if you think you can have Uncle Henry work 50 hours a week for you, and not pay him overtime, then you should make darn sure Henry's job is classified correctly.

Everybody knows from personal experience that nobody can do these staff jobs better than the little wife/nephew/brother-in-law/auntie.

Thanks for the ethical fallacies link. Always helpful for a brush up.

This is a sacred cow. Oregon businesses are run by Oregon families. From the mom & pop grocery to The Oregonian (where HR policy frames nepotism as "loyalty," and in my distant experience it was largely a true and positive policy) to the legislature, it's a pitch the tent together ideal.

Closing this practice will have two results - continue to reduce the number of sensible people willing to run for office or force Oregon to have professional politicians run the state.

Josephson's materials for that course were really first-rate.

continue to reduce the number of sensible people willing to run for office or force Oregon to have professional politicians run the state

I'm not sure that's true. Is Greg Macpherson paying a relative to do nothing? I'd be surprised.

If it is true, though, I'll take the professionals over the current crew, which has gotten quite tiresome. Once you reach the alleged-meth-freak-legislator-voting-against-meth-regulation-in-between-allegedly-boinking-the-Capitol-janitor stage, it's time for a change.

This is not just about hiring your wife.

It is about draining your account before you leave office, regardless of if you are going on to bigger and better offices, or leaving in disgrace.

I believe it is also a 'time honored tradition' to drain your account in the same fashion as Wirth did (quick staff raises after the session ended but before their term expired). Both Dems and Reps were guilty, but as I remember the bruhaha from a few years ago, one party was much more apt to do so than the other.

Is Greg Macpherson paying a relative to do nothing?

If I remember correctly, Greg's son was one of his legislative aides - but he was in Salem every day and worked his tail off.

His work ethic was more along the lines of the young go-getters that populate the legislative jobs that aren't held down by MIA relatives.

As I wrote over on BlueOregon, there are surely relatives who do a fine job -- but I think that a blanket policy that outlaws employing family members would cost less (in losing the few good ones) than the current practice, which has a tremendous cost in eroding public confidence.

I remember one '94 GOP revolutionary who was surprised to discover - upon arriving in DC - that there was no limo to shuttle him around (since he ran against those very perks).

Most of what the public believes about legislators is wrong (they confuse 'em with Hollywood celebs) - which is why it's critical to squash the few examples that are true.

It's time to put an end to legislative nepotism.


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