High integrity is crucial for politicians to represent the people well

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“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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myfather15 03/09/14 - 06:37 am
Mr. Young

You've made some excellent points, but I'm beginning to seriously doubt the "vast majority" of people serving in government are "the most principled people you would ever meet."

Maybe when they FIRST starting running for office, but then power, influence and relevance corrupt them!!

The ones you mention are only the ones who got caught committing criminal offenses. There are far more "offenses" of public office, that aren't considered criminal, that the majority participate in!!

I've worked in government long enough to have seen many examples of those who have never got caught. Doing such things as giving sweetheart government contracts to friends and family who own businesses, pork spending going to those same friends and family. Taking unwarranted trips around the globe, on taxpayer's dime. Using government funds during those trips, for such things as alcoholic drinks, gambling and parties.

Driving their government issued vehicles, for personal reasons; costing thousands of dollars in fuel for each person who does it. The list could go on and on for their infractions of public trust!! I know a politician
right now who uses County land, to raise cattle; using county funds to plant high protein grasses and feed for those cattle, saying that it's "Environmental improvement". Criminal? It's hard to prove!! Immoral? No doubt!!

Truth Matters
Truth Matters 03/09/14 - 10:10 am
Some great points were raised

Some great points were raised by the former mayor. I wished that he had spoken to the lack of integrity when one leaves office to circumvent an ethics investigation. CREWS, a watchdog group named then Rep. Nathan Deal to it's 2009 Most Corrupt List. (And yes, their were some Democrats on that list.). Some on that list who remained in Congress went to that "special place." But one got "out of Dodge" and ran and won the governor's race.

Riverman1 03/09/14 - 10:34 am
Why New Faces Are Good

I believe most don’t set out to be crooks. It’s a gradual blurring of lines with their influence and information they have access to causing increasing incidents of questionable dealings. Often it’s a family member who pushed the envelope buying property using inside information. They will reason that it’s not really wrong doing. The wife or some other relative has the right to do business, they’ll say. There are instances of that today in Richmond and Columbia counties with people we don’t think of as being corrupt. All this is a good reason not to allow politicians to become entrenched in office. New faces take a while to become ethically complacent.

Riverman1 03/09/14 - 10:45 am
Myfather Gave Great Examples

Myfather laid out great examples and he would know. It's things like the misuse of gas cards that are rationalized as being "just the way things are done." A former white commissioner actually became angry with the press when his large gas bill was questioned. He said something like commissioners had few privileges and this was simply a way to give them a little benefit. Never mind that it was not something approved and was probably illegal. He had rationalized breaking the law.

deestafford 03/09/14 - 02:47 pm
If we had an "integrity meter" that we...

If we had an "integrity meter" that we could yearly examine every politician, we would find we'd lose about half of them every year.

willie7 03/09/14 - 04:29 pm
Yield to temptation----many

Yield to temptation----many are tempted and fall for it.
I know personally because I have been offered money, land, trips and many other things to cut deals, but did not yield to temptation. I am not a politian but have served on many boards, state and local.
I have always refused and am happy that I did!!!!

blues550 03/09/14 - 11:09 pm
What A Fraud

This is penned by Cut & Run Young who ran for Mayor then split for a cushy federal position.

What a complete phony...who never passes up an opportunity to get his name in ink.

GnipGnop 03/10/14 - 01:27 am
Anyone that ran for office knew what that office

Paid. To expect perks means you should resign. To justify it by saying "well so and so uses his more" anyone that uses those words should be recalled. How things like the corrupt garbage tax and the blackmail for votes is not investigated is beyond me. It's almost as if everyone of us expects and accepts it instead of rallying at the courthouse steps and demanding representation instead of exploitation....

rebellious 03/12/14 - 07:38 pm

seems to be a moving target. I remember the first time one of my teenage kids said a buddy working at McDonalds "hooked him up" with extra orders of french fries. I was floored and thought I had done a better job raising him. After a logical discussion of the monetary loss to the owner, the reality of getting something you didn't pay for being theft, he understood. But this generation is inundated with white lies, shady dealings being OK, and getting "hooked up".

I once had a co-worker ask me if I wanted to buy electronic items cheap. Just tell him what I wanted and he would locate and sell for pennies on the dollar. I asked if the items were stolen. He replied they weren't, but he had a Fraternity Brother "hooking him up". Needless to say I declined. The point is, he thought it was Ok and acceptable.

Whether in the public or private sector, these "shrinkages" are passed on to the paying public. Maybe through higher retail prices to achieve the same profit margin, or higher taxes to cover the true cost of Government plus the waste, either way we "honest" folks pay for the graft and theft.

And let's not forget that theft of time such as 10 people to do what 5 could, is just as damaging and just as wrong. Just not identifiable as stealing.

Great article by Bob Young. Took a lot of Chutzpah, and a squeaky clean background to write. just hope the right people read it, cause Augusta can't afford to pay for too many more "hook ups"

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