Topic: Government & Politics

The Illinois Ethics Follies

When rules, laws, ethics and politics collide, as they now have in the Saga of the Bartered Senate Seat, the result is usually a nauseating mess. And that’s what we have, as the unethical have the law on their side, the cynical regard politics as an end in itself rather than a means to an end, and the political only care about who’s in the most comfortable chair when the music stops. By the time everyone has dirtied his hands, the concept of ethics is irrelevant.

Let’s examine how this works, shall we? Welcome to Illinois:

Gov. Blagojevich was taped discussing his desire to trade an appointment to Barack Obama’s now vacant U.S. Senate seat for personal gain. But because he never actually received a bribe, he may not have broken any laws. He just shattered any trust a citizen of Illinois could possibly have in his judgement, honesty, and fairness. An ethical, honorable man would resign from office, but Blagojevich won’t do that, because he wouldn’t be in this situation if he were ethical or honest.

The Illinois legislature is talking impeachment, but won’t try to solve the vacant Senate seat problem by holding a special election. Why? Not because, as it claims, such an election is “too expensive,” but because the controlling Democratic majority doesn’t want to risk a Republican winning Obama’s seat, even in an honest election. It would rather have the seat in limbo while Blagojevich tries every legal and political maneuver available than let the public choose a representative in the Senate. Politics has trumped ethics, and common sense.

Most qualified individuals on the Illinois scene would reject an appointment by the venal and disgraced Governor, and several did. But there is usually someone ambitious and desperate enough to try to capitalize on such situations by being just a little bit more ethically flexible, as well as willing to serve the needs of a scoundrel. Sure enough, career Illinois politician Roland Burris stepped up to be Blagojevich’s appointment, and it is a match made in heaven, or perhaps someplace hotter. Burris has long been at a political dead-end, trying unsuccessfully to advance to higher office after serving as state attorney general. Rejected by voters, Burris finally found a way to get around that nasty old ballot box” accept an appointment an ethical public servant would reject.

Burris is usually described in the news media as a qualified, honorable appointment. Tell that to Rolando Cruz and his family.

While Illinois attorney general in 1992, Burris sought the death penalty for Cruz, who had twice been convicted of raping and murdering a 10-year-old girl in 1983. But another man, a repeat sex offender and murderer, had recently confessed to the crime, and Burris’ own deputy attorney general urged Burris to drop the case, then on appeal before the Illinois Supreme Court.

But Burris refused. He was running for governor, and wanted to appear tough on crime. His jaw-dropping (and ethically indefensible) explanation for continuing to seek death for Cruz: "It is not for me to place my judgment over a jury, regardless of what I think."

And regardless of whether the trial was fair or the evidence convincing enough to kill a man. Roland Burris, man of principle.

Deputy attorney general Mary Brigid Kenney eventually resigned rather than argue Burris’ case for execution before the state supreme court. After Burris assigned Kenney to the case in 1991, she became convinced that Cruz was innocent, a victim of prosecutorial misconduct. She sent Burris a memo explaining that the jury convicted Cruz without knowing that another man had confessed to the crime. Kenney was not the first to be alarmed at the prosecution of Cruz. Prior to his 1985 trial, the lead detective in the case resigned to protest prosecutors' handling of the case.

Burris had his prosecutors continue the prosecution, even after DNA evidence uncovered in 1995 excluded Cruz as the victim's rapist and linked Brian Dugan, the man who had confessed, to the crime. The Illinois Supreme Court reversed Cruz's conviction and granted him a third trial, finding that the trial judge had improperly excluded Dugan’s confession. Cruz was eventually acquitted after serving 11 years on death row for a crime he did not commit.

The man who was perfectly satisfied to see him die in order to get elected governor is the current governor’s “qualified” appointee to be U.S. Senator. No wonder Roland Burris was willing to accept the tainted appointment: compared to killing an innocent man, it’s the height of propriety. Unethical politicians can find each other like soul mates in a crowded room. And they found a third: Chicago Representative Bobby Rush, who immediately implied that if the U.S. Senate tried to refuse to seat Burris, it would be a racist act, an attempt to keep the Senate all-white. Burris, like Rush, is African-American, and, like Rush, knows that is one major reason the diabolical governor chose him: to allow race-baiters, like Rush, to make his appointment stand for something other than minor matters like the frustration of democracy, violation of trust, lack of integrity, absence of honesty, ignorance of ethics, a vacuum of courage, and naked opportunism.

Thanks to Gov. Blagojevich, the Illinois legislature, Roland Burris and Bobby Rush, ethics are long gone from this fiasco. If ethics mattered to these people, the governor would have appointed a qualified senator based on what would be best for the Illinois and its citizens. If ethics mattered, once he had been exposed by the tapes as thoroughly untrustworthy, Gov. Blagojevich would have resigned. If ethics mattered, the legislature would have trust the voters to make their choice in a special election, and not let partisan considerations allow the untrustworthy governor to make a tainted appointment.

If ethics mattered in this political culture, no qualified candidate would accept such an appointment, and if ethics mattered, a spine-less, political hack like Roland Burris, who was satisfied to champion an innocent man’s execution for his own political gain, wouldn’t be considered qualified by anyone. If ethics mattered, nobody in this drama would be using race as a substitute for logic, fairness, and competence.

But in the Illinois Ethics Follies, ethics obviously don’t matter.

I think they should give the Senate seat to Rolando Cruz.

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