Monday, November 15, 2010

The Ethics Trap

Governor-elect Andrew Cuomo and Attorney General-elect Eric Schneiderman risk creating an unacceptable distraction by focusing on creating new prosecutors for Albany's legislators. Our state's problem is poor policy making rather than criminal behavior.

The Rangel Example

With his ethics trial beginning today, Congressman Charlie Rangel's challenges in the US House give us a great example of the risks of a runaway focus on "ethics" that ignores or even conflicts with common sense efforts to create the best public policy. Congressman Rangel has represented Upper Manhattan for 40 years and, after being accused of ethics violations, received 80% of the vote in the November elections. He did not face a serious challenge in the primaries or in the general election because the people of Upper Manhattan know his record of achievement, loyalty, and integrity.

Charlie Rangel has been accused of what amount to bookkeeping errors and paperwork mistakes. None of the mistakes enriched the Congressman, and the errors were largely sefl-reported and corrected long ago. One of the key attacks on Rangel is that he used his office stationary to seek donations for City College in Upper Manhattan. Irrespective of the ethics rules, anyone who asks for donations to be made to a wonderful organization that serves our city the way that City College does should be praised - the type of letterhead doesn't change the underlying effort, which is to promote increased and improved educational opportunities for young adults in our city.

Because of the ethics attacks, Congressman Rangel stepped down as the Chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, one of the most powerful posts in Congress. Therefore, the flimsy accusations based on self-reported and already-corrected poor bookkeeping and stationary mistakes resulted in an actual reduction in the quality and the competence of the leadership of one of the most important institutions in our country, the House Ways and Means Committee.

Congressman Rangel's bookkeeping errors did not result in job losses, weakened military strength, or poorer healthcare infrastructure in our country, but the accusations related to the bookkeeping errors actually reduced our ability as a country to attack our biggest challenges.

With the deficit continuing to grow and job growth failing to ignite, we need Charlie Rangel's leadership more than ever, and we should not lose it because his political opponents take advantage of his revelations to them of bookkeeping errors.

Albany Needs Leadership Rather Than Prosecutions

Cuomo and Schneiderman have announced that they plan to push for more prosecutions of New York State legislators. There is a big risk in such an approach.

In Albany, we have the most dysfunctional legislature in the United States. Our problem is ineffective policy-making, concentration of power, and a lack of honest debate regarding how to make our state the best it can be. There is undoubtedly criminal activity and unethical activity in the New York State government, but that criminality and lack of ethics is NOT the priority dysfunction that we must address.

Our state has massive budget deficits and spends more per capita on nearly every service that the average state in the US spends, yet we do not have a realistic opportunity to address our challenges because of the dysfunctional nature of our legislature. There is too little transparency and too much influence from interest groups instead of from the broader public interest.

Prosecuting legislators is NOT going to fix our state. In fact, a focus on finding misbehavior and criminality in Albany could distract our leaders from the monumental compromises them must forge to bring our state into the next decade on solid footing.

The Rangel experience should be a warning to us. We can dig deeply into the lives of public officials and then make mountains out of the mole hills of mistakes and failures we find. But, if we are to succeed, we will need to focus our attention on finding solutions to our problems rather than finding personal faults in those whom we've sent to Albany to lead us to job growth, improved education, and better, longer, happier lives.

Let us step back and acknowledge that we do not condone criminal or unethical behavior, but we also do not condone prosecutions as an alternative to effective governing. We have real work to do. Let us get to work.

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