“Integrity is doing the right thing even when no one is watching.”
— C.S. Lewis, “Mere Christianity”
And giving politicians highly fungible definitions of “ethics” tempts them to do what looks like the wrong thing even when we all are watching.
From the front-page story of Sunday’s “Special Report: Capitol Gains”:
“South Carolina’s elected officials and candidates have what amounts to a personal ATM that dispensed nearly $100 million since 2009 for such things as car repairs, football tickets, male-enhancement pills, GoPro cameras, overseas junkets and gasoline.
“A joint investigation by The Post and Courier and the Center for Public Integrity also found state lawmakers and candidates used this cash machine to hire their own companies, pay parking tickets, purchase an AARP membership — and even buy a used BMW convertible for parades.
“The money funding this political cash machine comes from candidates’ campaign accounts, reimbursements from state government and outright gifts from special interests.”
OK, much of that seemingly indefensible spending is legal under what our story accurately dubbed the state’s “murky” ethics laws.
Plus, buying a used BMW for parades is cheaper than buying a new one.
And that salary of $10,400 a year is paltry compensation to our state legislators for the constant aggravation they must bear from constituents’ conflicting demands.
Then again, those who serve in the S.C. House and Senate get plenty of swell perks for that part-time job.
And for a while there, it looked as if former House Speaker Bobby Harrell and/or former Sen. Robert Ford — both from Charleston — might have to serve time.
Instead, Harrell, a Republican, was sentenced last October to three years’ probation, fined nearly $125,000 and required to turn over remaining campaign funds to the state after pleading guilty to six counts of misusing campaign-account money.
Then early this year, Ford pleaded guilty to one misconduct in office charge, a forgery charge and two charges of violating the state Ethics Act covering his financial reporting. He was sentenced in May to five years’ probation and ordered to pay nearly $70,000 in restitution.
Maybe Harrell and Ford, like the minuscule percentage of speeders pulled out of the zooming multitudes on our highways, are just two of the unfortunate few out of an unscrupulous General Assembly many.
Maybe what happened to them will make other lawmakers warier about stretching the loose ethics regulations past the breaking point.
Of course, politicians aren’t the only ones prone to ethical lapses.
So before too sanctimoniously condemning vote panderers for how — and how much — they indulge in self-aggrandizement in office, put yourself to this ethics pop test (answers at column’s end):
1) You’re a quarterback one victory away from another Super Bowl and prefer to throw a football inflated under the minimum level allowed by the NFL. You should:
a) play fairly by using the ball at the lowest inflation level permitted by the rules
b) instruct flunkies to deflate it well under that minimum, then deny calling that lowdown conspiracy play
c) confound those who dared to criticize your cheating by starting the next season with three impressive victories
d) run up the score on the Jacksonville Jaguars
2) Somebody tells you something after requesting and receiving your assurance that you will keep it a secret. You should:
a) tell a few people, but not unless they agree to keep it a secret
b) tell no one what that person told you
c) tell a lot of people with no condition of secrecy
d) write about it in a newspaper
3) You’re running for elective office. You should:
a) smear your opponents as unethical scoundrels
b) promise voters anything they might want
c) be honest with voters about what you can and can’t do if victorious
d) dismiss allegations of your own wrongdoing as “old news”
4) You find $10,000 in cash in an envelope on the sidewalk. You should:
a) use it all to reduce your personal debt
b) invest it all in the Chinese stock market
c) bet it all on two-point-favorite (as of Monday afternoon) Georgia to cover the spread against Alabama on Saturday in Athens. (It’s the first time the Crimson Tide has been a betting-line underdog since the 2009 SEC championship game, which Alabama won over five-point favorite Florida, 32-13.)
d) turn it all over to the police
Answers: 1) a; 2) b; 3) c; 4) d.
If you got any — or even all — of those answers wrong, don’t take it too hard.
After all, in these jaded times, it’s unrealistic to expect many regular folks to match the lofty ethical standards still typically honored by the clergy, medical professionals, teachers and journalists.
But if you want to raise your ethical score, try remembering that even when no one else is watching, you are.
Frank Wooten is assistant editor of The Post and Courier. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.