Public service is no picnic. It easily provides a psychic return in enabling a person to feel satisfied that he or she is helping others. It also imposes an ethical straitjacket.
For example, personal investments by members of Congress project a poor image: elected officials often have inside information that can produce profitable transactions.
Perception dogs every public official, as it should. If an action bears even a small scent of impropriety, don’t do it. Lack of trust by the public is a long-lasting punishment. It is difficult to recover approval after an ethical mishap.
When I served as deputy treasurer for Maryland, I sometimes attended high-level investment meetings of the State Retirement and Pension System. The nuggets of information were delectable. Do I use them for my modest portfolio? Would it be unethical to exploit my access to valuable data?
I learned early on in my career: if in doubt, don’t.
If you cannot sleep at night due to a transgression that someone will likely never know, don’t transgress.
My ethical line is super bright. It is a beneficial barrier. It prevents behavior that I will surely regret. It is good for my emotional well-being. It is invaluable. It is the right course.
Some members, jaded from years of service, follow different standards. The thinking goes like this: though a congressional member, I am entitled to invest my money; I cannot stop thinking about my family and its financial well-being; if I learn something particularly appetizing, I would be foolish to disregard it; I had a life prior to elected public service, and I will have one afterwards; I did not have to take a vow of poverty when I was sworn into the House of Representatives or U.S. Senate.
This thinking leads to decisions, if not unethical, are highly questionable, if not arrogant.
I feel so strongly because I learned of instances when Maryland state legislators betrayed the public trust. It was always about money, of course. The temptation is too great for some.
One legislator, well-liked and well-respected, was working as a consultant for a grocery business that wanted a traffic light. He wrote a letter to the State Highway Administration on his state-senator letterhead. He also chaired a budget committee. The request gained approval. He received a fee for service normally provided by an elected official.
When the news came out, this state senator faced condemnation, a trial and disgrace. To add insult to injury, the senator’s attorney, a former legislator, offered a defense that wreaked of irony and offensiveness: his client was too dumb to pull off the caper for which he was charged.
Selling political influence is a longstanding practice throughout the American political sphere. It never seems to vanish. Its stench is infinite.
Conflict of interest is another prevalent bugaboo. According to an analysis by the New York Times, 97 members of Congress traded stocks related to oversight by House and Senate committees on which they served. Many rebutted any claims of unethical behavior. They were right. They were wrong, however, about optics; their constituents might disagree about the propriety of buying and selling stocks in companies whose inner workings are known by congressional members.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is planning to introduce legislation by the end of this month to ban stock trades by congressional members and their members. With elections facing all representatives and some senators in early December, I wonder if the bill will move quickly for political reasons, or be stalled until after the Nov. 8 election, for political reasons.
Though self-righteous, I feel comfortable on my high horse.
Columnist Howard Freedlander retired in 2011 as Deputy State Treasurer of the State of Maryland. Previously, he was the executive officer of the Maryland National Guard. He also served as community editor for Chesapeake Publishing, lastly at the Queen Anne’s Record-Observer. After 44 years in Easton, Howard and his wife, Liz, moved in November 2020 to Annapolis, where they live with Toby, a King Charles Cavalier Spaniel who has no regal bearing, just a mellow, enticing disposition.