Topic: Government & Politics

The Ethics of Sarah Palin, Part Two

The last time it visited Planet Palin, the Scoreboard noted the principle that just because the media and political enemies have been grossly unfair to a public figure, it does not necessarily follow that the public figure has behaved properly. It also is appropriate to articulate the reverse principle: the fact that a public figure has behaved badly doesn’t lower the standards of fair judgement of her conduct. We might call this “The Alaska Principle,” as it also applies to unquestionably corrupt former Alaska senator Ted Stevens, whom federal prosecutors were so eager to convict that they stomped all over the concepts of “fair trial,” “due process” and justice. Now another one of the myriad ethics charges against Palin is gaining traction, and thus has been too-gleefully cited by her political foes as proof that Sarah is a crook in pitbull’s clothing.

It’s a bit more complicated than that.

Palin, ever since being named as John McCain’s running mate last year and becoming the equivalent of fingernails on a blackboard for liberals, Democrats, abortion advocates, environmentalists and people who like some substance with their charisma, has been in the cross-hairs of critics who have used the overly-democratic ethics procedure in Alaska as a form of political vengeance and harassment. Anyone can file an ethics complaint, and the anti-Palin brigade has filed about twenty, each requiring investigation and administrative action, costing the state and Palin a great deal of money.

Take that, you excessively spunky folksy maverick ex-beauty queen mom who has the effrontery to be a conservative and to run for national office with so little leadership experience even though it was more experience than the current President had!!

Almost all of the complaints have been baseless, and have been dismissed. The few that have staying power are related to Palin’s clumsy efforts to fire her former brother-in-law, a rookie mistake but an ethics violation nonetheless. Now, however, an Alaskan investigator for the state Personnel Board says in his findings report that there is probable cause to believe Palin violated state ethics laws when she used or attempted to use her official position for personal gain because she authorized the creation of an ‘official’ legal defense fund to help her pay to defend all of the bogus claims. This, says the investigator, may mean that Palin is securing “unwarranted benefits and receiving improper gifts through the Alaska Fund Trust, set up by supporters.” The statute in question says that…

A public officer may not use, or attempt to use, an official position for personal gain, and may not intentionally secure or grant unwarranted benefits or treatment for any person.

Another, regarding gifts, adds…

…A public officer may not solicit, accept, or receive, directly or indirectly, a gift, whether in the form of money, service, loan, travel, entertainment, hospitality, employment, promise, or in any other form, that is a benefit to the officer's personal or financial interests, under circumstances in which it could reasonably be inferred that the gift is intended to influence the performance of official duties, actions, or judgment.

The investigator, an attorney with the law firm Perkins Coie, argues that financial assistance in defending against the ethics claims constitutes “personal gain.” Palin’s defenders counter that her candidacy for Vice President and her position as Governor created the conditions leading to the complaints, and that the investigator is arguing a true Catch-22: these positions create the burdensome ethics claims on Palin, but it is an abuse of her position for her to seek assistance in paying them.

They are right, but he is also right. The fund quite probably violates the acts, which never anticipated that political enemies would abuse the ethics complaint process to such an extent that a sitting governor would have to expend burdensome amounts of personal resources for her own defense. Thomas Daniel, the Perkins Coie attorney, suggests that Alaska should consider making the state responsible for paying the legal bills for the defense of its governors when they are accused of ethics violations. Without such a policy, Palin is in a tough spot. Tough spot or not, Palin’s actions are not in compliance with the statute.

Is the statute unfair to Palin in application? That is a fair conclusion. Still, governors have no choice but to obey the laws of their states. The organizer of Palin’s defense fund has had business with the state, and was arguably in a position to benefit from Palin’s gratitude before she resigned as governor. People who contributed money to the fund might well expect payback.

Thus, the verdict on this ethics matter must be a mixed one:

  • Did Palin violate the ethics statute by establishing the fund? Probably, yes.
  • Does that make her conduct unethical in this matter? Yes. As with her abuse-of- power problems regarding her ex-brother-in-law, her conduct is understandable. But it is still prohibited.
  • Is the statute fair to someone in her circumstances? The prohibition against officials using their names and positions to raise money is logical; this is a practice to be avoided. Does the existence of the statute’s prohibitions mean that an official in Palin’s predicament has limited options? Yes, it certainly does, and this creates a hardship for her.
  • Were the partisan enemies who have buried Palin in so many spurious ethics complaints acting unethically? In most cases, yes. As we know, that still doesn’t let Palin ignore the rules. All together now: “Two wrongs don’t make a right!”

Yes, for Sarah Palin under Alaska’s laws, it was “Unethical if you do, go broke if you don’t.” I still believe her decision to quit as governor was wrong, and she brought many of her ethics problems on herself through stubbornness and carelessness. But her dilemma regarding the costs of defending herself deserves, at very least, some sympathy.

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