Topic: Government & Politics

The Schiavo Memo: Mystery Solved, Ethics Still Missing

The Washington Post appears to have this story right at least: it reported that the legal counsel to Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) admitted that he was the author of a memo citing the political advantage to Republicans of intervening in the case of Terri Schiavo. ABC News, and then everybody else, had reported earlier that the mysterious memo had been circulated to "Republican senators" during consideration of the Schiavo bill, and despite the fact that no author for the memo had been identified and the fact that no Republican senators reported receiving it, the story quickly became about a unsavory memo produced by "Republican leadership." Later, Howard Kurtz of the Post reported that in fact, nobody knew where the memo had come from or who had gotten it, but that none of this had stopped ABC and the Post from reporting the story in a way that made the Republican leadership look crass and clumsy.

And they are crass and clumsy, but that doesn’t excuse the media. Now we learn that the memo got out this way: Martinez’s counsel drafted the memo, which somehow got into the Senator’s papers, unread. Senator Martinez, in turn, handed it over to Senator Tom Harkin, a Democrat supporting the Save Schiavo Even If It Means Making A Mockery Of The US Justice System (Note: That wasn’t the real name of the bill) effort, thinking it was a standard office memo explaining the issues. Harkin read the offensive memo draft, and had his staff duly pass it off to ABC News as evidence of the mindset of the GOP.

Now, finally, Ethics Scoreboard has enough facts to determine the ethical miscreants in this odd episode.

The rundown:

  • Brian Darling, Martinez’ legal counsel. First, he drafts a memo that recommends exploiting a brain-damaged woman and a bitter family dispute to gain a political advantage. Horrible, and obviously an act displaying the complete ethical insensitivity of, say Tom DeLay. Then, as the memo he wrote is being misrepresented in the media as coming from the party’s leadership, embarrassing his party and making them all look, well, as ethically despicable as he is, Darling clams up and doesn’t let his boss know that he’s the one at fault. To crass and clumsy, add cowardly, and that about sums up Brian Darling. The Post story says his resignation was "immediately accepted." You betcha.

  • Senator Harkin. Martinez has raved about how "collegial" and "cooperative" Harkin was as they both worked on the same side in this dubious project. But when Martinez turned over the memo to Harkin, and Harkin realized that it was offensive (and almost certainly realized that it wasn’t intended to be read by him, given the highly partisan message), did he call up his good colleague and say, "Hey, Mel, did you really mean for me to see this?" Did he in any way treat his colleague the way he, Harkin, would want to be treated if he mistakenly handed a potentially embarrassing document to another Senator? No, Harkin leaped at the opportunity to use Martinez’s mistake to help the press assail the Republicans, and he did it without bothering to find out what the intent of the memo was and whom it was supposed to reach. Harkin’s aide, the "unimpeachable source" who handed it over to ABC news, told ABC that the memo was being "distributed to Republican senators." But that was untrue: the only senator who had the memo "distributed" to him was Harkin…and he’s a Democrat!

  • ABC News, et al. The fact that the memo came from a Republican senator’s ethical challenged staff member doesn’t change the verdict on ABC and the rest of the media that reported the story. The memo, in fact, wasn’t from GOP leadership, as the ABC story implied and as subsequent stories elsewhere actually stated. It wasn’t distributed to Republican senators; in fact, it was "distributed" to one Democratic senator, and that was an accident. The source who gave ABC the memo was obviously a biased conduit, yet ABC leapt at the chance to embarrass the Republicans, demonstrating its own bias in the process.

  • Senator Martinez. He hands out draft documents to political opponents without reading them. He hires unethical lawyers, and doesn’t oversee his own staff. Competence is an ethical value, and based on this comedy of errors, Martinez is a quart low.

If anybody in this undistinguished cast…Martinez, Harkin, the media, or Darling, had behaved fairly and ethically, we never would have heard or read about the Schiavo memo, because it either wouldn’t have been written, or would have ended up in the trash can it so richly deserved.

But none of them did.

The battle rages on….


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