One of the elements of the recent McCutcheon decision that has had many lawyers shaking their heads is the majority’s airy dismissal of concerns about the many ways dollars corrupt the system.
The majority limited the definition of corruption to the receipt of a quid pro quo.
Now, obviously, the exchange of money for a legislator’s vote is a corrupt act. It is also illegal. The majority seems to believe that only such blatant and illegal acts–outright bribes–are unethical.
If that cramped understanding of the ethical obligations of citizens and public servants carries the day, it won’t take long until we inhabit a society that has lost whatever is left of its moral center.
Let’s look at a couple of examples that are currently playing locally.
State Representative Eric Turner is currently being investigated for working feverishly behind the scenes to derail a law that would have hurt his son’s nursing home business. (According to the Indianapolis Star last Sunday, Turner also had significant personal investments that would have been negatively affected by the legislation.) If the allegations are proven, Turner is probably guilty of breaking a law, although that isn’t entirely clear–but even if his behavior didn’t actually violate a statute, is there any doubt that such actions were unethical?
Then there’s the smoke alarm ordinance that I blogged about awhile back. Counselor Scales (who seems to be the only City-County Counselor at all concerned about the fact that it would hand one vendor a probable monopoly) asked for and received an opinion from legal counsel. She was told that an offer–a quid pro quo, actually–that didn’t enrich anyone personally isn’t a violation of the City’s ethics ordinance.
If you’ll recall, the ordinance would require property owners to purchase smoke alarms with non-removable, non-replaceable “sealed” batteries with a ten-year life. The company that manufactures those alarms, and would benefit from the requirement, promised IFD “free smoke detectors, payment for TV and radio public-service announcements, press events and donations to IFD-favored charities” in exchange for IFD’s support for the ordinance.
No firefighter was bribed, but the department would certainly benefit from the “generosity” of the vendor–and needless to say, the vendor would benefit financially from passage of that ordinance. IFD didn’t solicit “bids” and didn’t give other smoke alarm companies an opportunity to match the “gifts.” That said, no law was broken. The Ethics ordinance wasn’t violated.
The McCutcheon majority would dismiss these–and countless similar examples–as mere persuasion. Free speech. The prerogative of those who are engaged in commerce.
The fact that such behaviors take place behind closed doors is a pretty good indication that the people involved know that such activities–legal or not–aren’t kosher. Legal doesn’t equal ethical, no matter how disconnected from reality the Court’s majority remains.