High integrity is crucial for politicians to represent the people well

“The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity. Without it, no real success is possible, no matter whether it is on a section gang, a football field, in an army, or in an office.”

– Dwight D. Eisenhower

 

There is a special place for people in public office who steal from the people they serve. Just where that “special place” is, I haven’t figured out just yet. Yet, it must be special, because a lot of people seem to try really hard to get there.

 

THE NAMES ARE so familiar: School Superintendent Linda Schrenko, convicted of stealing from blind and deaf children; state Sen. Charles Walker, convicted of conspiracy, mail fraud and filing false tax returns; state Rep. Robin Williams, convicted of stealing from mentally ill people; South Carolina Agriculture Secretary Charles Sharpe, convicted of demanding payoffs from illegal cockfighters; Augusta Mayor Ed McIntyre, convicted of demanding payoffs from developers; and Augusta City Councilman Joe Jones, who carried the water for McIntyre.

The only special place these folks made it to was prison.

Yet none of these cases was a so-called teaching moment for other recent officeholders. Richmond County Coroner Grover Tuten was indicted for stealing from dead people. Columbia County Tax Commissioner Kay Allen was accused in the court of public opinion of creatively diverting money from taxpayers.

Kay Allen’s attorney was quoted last week as saying she and her husband, Columbia County Commissioner Charles Allen, “hope the healing process will begin for Columbia County.” Well, this may come as news to Mrs. Allen: She helped inflict the wound. She then poured salt into that wound by slipping out of office on a taxpayer-funded pension and keeping half of the disputed fees she was accused of pocketing. Amazing.

 

MANY OF US KNOW most of these folks I’ve mentioned because we gave them our votes. When they ran for office, they were likable and seemed competent. They all said they wanted to serve us and make our lives better. We took them at their word. We never questioned their integrity.

How has that worked out for us?

Having spent a decade in political office, I’ve come to learn that the rogues’ gallery of disgraced politicians is not unique to Augusta. Some of the mayors I’ve known and worked with across this country have tried to blaze a trail to that “special place,” only to be derailed and locked up.

These names may not be as familiar to you: Mayor Buddy Cianci of Providence, R.I., who was elected twice and resigned twice amid felony convictions; Mayor Bill Campbell of Atlanta, who skated past corruption charges, but nonetheless went to prison for not paying his income taxes; Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick of Detroit, who will spend 28 years in prison for racketeering and extortion; and Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans, who recently was convicted of corruption charges stemming from the recovery efforts after Hurricane Katrina.

All of these men proclaimed their innocence, but juries made up of their constituents didn’t buy it.

Kilpatrick – the first mayor I ever met who wore an earring, a diamond stud – was quoted at his sentencing saying: “I really, really, really messed up.” But you wonder whether he meant that he “messed up” by doing wrong or by getting caught.

If there is a common thread through many of these cases, it can only be greed. Greed will gobble up integrity with a vengeance, like a grinder making mulch from the recent storm debris.

The longer someone is in office – Cianci was mayor for 21 years – the stronger that urge becomes, and the more toxic the corrupt official becomes to our political system.

 

PUBLIC OFFICIALS sometimes complain that voters hold them to too high a standard. Clearly, for some, the standard is not high enough.

Stealing from the people you serve shows a total lack of the integrity President Eisenhower was talking about.

Many people I’ve mentioned in this column left their offices kicking and screaming and proclaiming they did nothing wrong. Some even took that denial to the grave.

Not one of these convicted officials immediately stepped forward to admit they had let the public down, apologized, made things right and moved on. Not one. That alone speaks volumes. A delayed apology or a deferred guilty plea is not an antidote to the poison a corrupt official has injected into the body of public trust.

 

FORTUNATELY, FAR more public officials go about the people’s business every day, exhibiting exceptional integrity. They protect our lives and property. They provide the services that bring us clean water to drink, and pick up our trash. They see that roads and bridges are maintained safely. They sit in judgment of those who have wronged us. They provide food and shelter to our poorest and oldest.

I’ve served with some of the most principled people you would ever meet. They are the vast majority of people in government today. No doubt they are also less tolerant than you are of the actions of those colleagues who would give public serve a bad name.

The upcoming elections would be a good time to insist on integrity first. We don’t need a healing balm, as the Allens’ attorney asserts. We need a disinfectant!

 

(The writer was Augusta’s mayor from 1999 to 2005, and a former assistant deputy secretary for the U.S. Depart­ment of Hou­sing and Urban De­vel­op­ment.)

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