Drawing the Ethical Line in Government

By Eric Rabe, Fels Senior Advisor

Recently, I wrote that bloggers who practice journalism cannot accept favors from those they cover. To do so destroys the writer’s credibility. When not disclosed is dishonest to readers.

What about those who work in government? Of course, most towns, states and agencies draw clear ethics guidelines, and many cities and states as well as the federal government have laws against accepting gifts of significant value.

Almost anyone would agree, I think, that a staffer who accepts a free new deck at his home from a construction company seeking permits from his agency, well, he is way over the line.

I noted in that previous blog that “…as a PR executive, I would happily have picked up lunches or entertainment for friends in the press, expecting only the chance to make my case in return,” but most journalists refused.

Is it OK to take a lunch? Not a very nice lunch if you’re a federal official. Federal guidelines limit the value of a gift to $20. But what about a small town mayor speaking at the local Rotary Club? It is probably OK to eat a meal at the event, and federal rules would allow it.

The value of the gift makes a difference. A ball point pen; fine. A new car; not fine. My company’s limit was a value of $75 for a gift given or received.

How about giving access? Is it ethical or not to take phone calls and visits from campaign contributors when others who didn’t contribute have no such access? Like it or not, most of us assume this is simply a routine way of doing government business. Of course, all of us would take a phone call from a friend. But when that phone call turns into special treatment by a government official, it’s a problem. Even if it doesn’t break a law, the issue of “special access” can be a political liability.

What about running a political campaign ad that attacks an opponent and which the sponsor knows is a distortion of the facts if not just plain false? Most of us take those ads for granted too.

In the September 24 New Yorker, Jill Lepore writes in “The Lie Factory” about the rise of political consultants. The first of these, Campaign, Inc., in early life fought against of Upton Sinclair who was running for governor of California. Sinclair is well know for his book “The Jungle,” and he was a prodigious writer. Campaign, Inc. culled through Sinclair’s works both fiction and non-fiction to find quotes that could damage his run for office. The LA Times published one every day. For example:


“The sanctity of marriage…I have had such a belief…I have it no longer.”

The words were those of a character in a Sinclair novel, Lepore reports, and Campaign, Inc., knew it. “Sure those quotations were irrelevant,” one official said, “But we had one objective: to keep him from becoming Governor.” Sound at all familiar?

Many books have been written on where the ethical line should be drawn in the press, in business and in government. Yet often the issues are not black and white. So often it is up to each of us to make on the spot judgements and to be guided by our sense of right and wrong. If there’s a question, don’t take the gift. In the end, the old adage often holds true: If you don’t want to read it in the press, (new or old media), just don’t do it.

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Peter Sperry

Best ethics advice I ever recieved on gifts –“If it is worth carrying past the trash can on your way out of the room, you can’t accept it.”

Sonja Newcombe

Ethics is an issue because of the lack of responsibility, accountability for ones actions. I was raised by my grandparents” A person word is his bond”. In today society we allow escape goats and non-responsibility to be okay during the right self-serving situations. Being a single mom of three boys born in the same year, I taught them respect, ethics, responsibility of your actions. I know they have challenges ahead of them, but I am sure, I have taught them it’s okay to have strong ethics. Leadership today is pledged with accommodation and you scratch my back and I will scratch yours…. This mentality in the Whitehouse and in Government has made us crippled. Our very late Kennedy president didn’t need to scratch anyone’s back and they killed him. This speaks in volume. You shouldn’t need a gift to do your job or make a decision, are u for sell……