The issue of ethics is invariably raised in this age of Enron, Sub Prime Lenders, Insider Trading, Pay to Play, tax evasion and numerous other illegal and/or ethically questionable practices. For Latinos who are acting in the public arena as elected or appointed officials and career public servants, it becomes an obligation to demonstrate respect for the public concerns on ethical behavior. The USA is no different than most other countries where corruption or unethical practices occur. Most nations, like the USA, have written rules and laws governing the behavior of its public officials. Unfortunately, too often those rules and laws are broken, either by a blatant corrupt act which violates the established laws or by a conflict of interest question, which technically does not violate the law, but has the appearance of impropriety at times coupled with a “foul smell.”
The Latino community, like most communities, is largely intolerant of any such violation of the public trust. Many fellow Latinos who have immigrated to the US are very familiar with official conduct mired with impropriety or corruption back in the society they left behind. This issue often plays into the decision to leave their country, after losing hope of ever getting the opportunity to improve their lot due to the corruption of the groups that exercise power. Hence, the concern over public graft is not new to our newly arrived fellow Latinos or to those who have been here for generations. Many are the incidents where public figures have committed an indiscretion or an act which suggests that the public trust has been violated, in our society at large, including all ethnic groups: Whites, Black, Latinos, and Asian. Yet, the most disturbing trend is the constituency support enjoyed by this type of public figure despite specific accusations and/or criminal charges. It is almost common these days to witness public officials and government workers become not just the interest but, even more seriously, the subject or target of a grand jury investigation, of a prosecuting attorney’s investigation, of a formal indictment, of a conviction, or of a Presidential Pardon. Too often the official being investigated or accused tends to seek public support, first by declaring that he or she is innocent (which well may be the case). But, even more importantly, when the evidence of wrong doing becomes most apparent through a conviction or a pardon instead of the community censuring or ostracizing the public figure, they extend their support, even at the voting booth.
In the past, the Latino Community has experienced the trial and conviction of at least two federal representatives, the grand jury and prosecutor investigations of: mayors (some even pardoned before any trial was held), several local officials, including state representatives, county and municipal functionaries and even corrupt police officers. Admittedly everyone, including public officials, has a right to a day in court with the best attorney and PR that money can make possible. The citizenry has a responsibility not to readily condemn its public officials at the drop of a hat, it must be discerning to detect betrayal of the public trust. Impunity before the law is common place in many parts of Latin America, but any attempt by elements or members of the Hispanic/Latino community to harbor or espouse acts or thoughts of impunity must be swiftly condemned. The fact is that too often we see disgraced public figures continue to be re-elected or welcomed back into the community with virtual approbation of their conduct. This denotes that the practice of ‘honoring virtue’ perhaps has ceased to exist in contemporary society. More specifically, society and/or its sectors should not overlook the destruction of the public trust nor should they accept such behavior as proper and acceptable. Recently, the news has been filled with images of the impeachment and removal of the Governor of the State of Illinois over improper practices (even if no legal process such as a trial has occurred). Other questionable concerns have arisen over Cabinet designees who are being scrutinized for not having paid taxes when due. Violation of the public trust is clearly grounds for censure and reprimand. Yet when the laws have not been broken and the question lies in an ethical dilemma is when society as a whole must decide the right course for addressing impropriety on the part of our public officials, for example in the case of personal indiscretions, such as marital infidelity. The easiest way to send a clear signal of disapproval is at the polls, denying these officials our support. Tasteless and disagreeable actions may suggest bad judgment, questionable ethical values and other such deficiencies. One prominent Washington public figure once noted that: “… getting elected to office or getting appointed to a lofty position is like climbing a tree: the higher you go the more your ass will show…”
Public officials in our day and age often do not seem capable of making the distinction between wanting to be a celebrity and being a public official. Both invariably attract scrutiny and attention. Celebrities often appear ready to cultivate ‘scandal and flamboyant behavior’. It seems to add a certain patina to their image. But scandal and outrageous behavior among public officials is not a value-added. It is plainly a disgrace and deserving of the public’s rebuke. The Latino community must avoid the perception that somehow it is ready to disregard behavior which is repugnant to common propriety. We must ensure that the Latino community does not accept or tolerate unethical behavior. Conflicts of interest are another concern in the public place which must also be taken seriously in order to safeguard the values, as well as the image, of the Latino community. Again, in these times of Governors getting impeached and removed from office, Cabinet Designees either being asked to withdraw or undergoing a most exacting scrutiny by members of Congress, Mayors tangled in sordid impropriety issues related to personal integrity, judgment and plainly unethical practices in appointments and contracting suggest that, ethical consideration should always be a factor among Latinos when choosing its heroes and/or leaders. Our role-models, the national political and the corporate business professional leadership, as well as the ordinary public civil servant class should all be chosen from within the framework of a society that honors virtue instead of extolling the foibles of the human condition. Washington DC is, as one public wag once remarked: “…a place where all of America’s former high school student council presidents come to do ‘good’ but invariably do ‘well’. Unfortunately, the point is that wealth accumulation tends to overtake the commitment to serving the public good at the end of the day.
Photo Credit: University of Delaware photo by Duane Perry of former HUD Secretary Henry Cisneros, who was indicted for conspiracy, giving false statements, and obstruction of Justice, in a scheme involving payments to a former mistress.
Pictured Second, former Congressman Bob Garcia of NY, who was implicated in a financial scandal.
And finally, Dr. Antonia Novello, former Surgeon General under Bush I, who is making news for being investigated for abuse of power (using state employees to do her personal shopping).