Brecht

Bertolt Brecht, winner of the 1954 Stalin Peace Prize, had an intriguing take on ethics (see question No. 9). AP

State Rep. Jim Merrill was indicted Wednesday on 30 counts of ethics violations.

Merrill's attorneys issued a statement that day saying that the Daniel Island Republican denied the charges.

Of course, Bobby Harrell (back when he was S.C. House speaker), Robert Ford (back when he was a state senator) and Ken Ard (back when he was lieutenant governor) all initially denied ethics charges against them. They all also eventually pleaded guilty to some charges and lost their elective-office jobs, albeit avoiding jail time.

That doesn't mean Merrill is guilty.

But there's no denying that many elected officials in our state have been ethically challenged through the years.

Then again, our society's ongoing moral decline isn't confined to politicians — or South Carolinians.

Meanwhile, though, we journalists remain deeply committed to — and widely admired for — our lofty ethical standards.

Thus, as paragons of impeccable ethical conduct, we often struggle to understand how those in other callings wander so far astray from the fair-play principles of truth, justice and the American way.

So as a timely public service, this column presents a series of questions designed to test readers' ethical perspectives — and maybe even to elevate them.

Should you ...

1) Solicit or accept cash for your public-relations firm while making legislative decisions that affected them if, for instance, you are a member of the S.C. House?

2) Trade your influence as a high-ranking government official (for instance, U.S. Secretary of State) in return for contributions to a charitable foundation that actually enriches you and your family?

3) Take advantage of your trusted-insider access to a college football team's game plans (for instance, as an analyst on radio broadcasts of the team's games) by treacherously providing them, including trick-play details, to an opposing team's coaching staff?

4) Put unelected, unqualified members of your family in powerful positions, immune from legislative confirmation, after winning a high-stakes election (for instance, for U.S. president)?

5) Allow, as a city (and maybe even elected) official who should have known what was going on, a city employee to live in a city-owned house for six years without paying rent — and without city council's knowledge?

6) Accept, as a city employee, six years of no-rent (and no authorization by city council) living in a city-owned house?

7) Repeatedly tout your support as an influential elected official (for instance, a county council chairman) for the completion of a major road project, then tell others that you actually oppose it, then insist again that you support it?

8) Repeatedly say — and tweet — absurdities that demean the high office you won (for instance, the presidency) while unnerving both your backers and opponents at home and abroad?

9) Concur with gifted, leftist, German poet/playwright ("The Threepenny Opera") Bertolt Brecht in this priority ranking he set: "Grub, then ethics"?

10) Strongly defend the legitimacy of our election system against charges that it is "rigged" before the votes are cast, then after your candidate loses, change your tune into whining mode while urging electors to overturn the clear victory of a candidate who won 30 of the 50 states?

11) Blatantly violate NFL rules, as a head coach, by using a walkie-talkie to improperly communicate with your quarterback in the decisive fourth quarter of a close game, cheating the team that would have otherwise won and clinched the division title (for instance, "America's Team")?

Correct answer to all questions: No.

Do the right thing

OK, so "grub before ethics" does have a powerful appeal to hungry folks.

Plus, it's much easier to find fault with the ethics of others than to act in a consistently ethical manner of your own.

But with Christmas just eight days away, keep in mind that setting a positive ethical example is a gift that keeps on giving.

And keep in mind that as too many people have learned the hard way, keeping on an ethical path can keep you out of trouble.

Frank Wooten is assistant editor of The Post and Courier. His email is wooten@postandcourier.com.