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Can We Actually Regulate Ethical Behavior?

Jul 22, 2011 08:11PM ● Published by Anonymous

As “scandals” emerge surrounding elected officials or political operators, more scrutiny follows. Most of those officials’ eventual downfalls are the result of (un)ethical behavior. Resignations have become common place – but it’s usually right before they have to face the dreaded ethics committee.

I have always seen myself as one who wants to do the right thing - including providing the best and most balanced information on the issues while recognizing the pressure elected officials are under. I believe in the system. The political world in which I live and work is a microcosm of the general public, but when something negative occurs it is highlighted that much more.

With ethic violations garnering so much attention, it bears the question of just how meaningful are our ethics laws? And has the ethical behavior of legislators and political operatives changed?

Thirty years ago, I would go out 2-3 nights a week to Fran O’Brien’s and interact with fellow legislators and lobbyists – building relationships while exchanging stories. It seemed so innocent, at least to me. Today buying a legislator a drink would be illegal. While the rules have changed, the legislators are as busy as ever. Schedules are juggled to the point where many of our interactions are “walking meetings” as they head from their office over to the State House.

The other thing that has changed is the Maryland Public Ethics Law, including new regulations for lobbyists. Before, we never had to register or file financial reports to be a lobbyist. Now we do. A decade ago we did not have a specific list of activities that are illegal if you are a lobbyist. Now we do – including obvious things such as not lying or encouraging others to partake in acts of fraud.

While these regulations are all well and good, I go back to my original question of whether they are at all effective? Can we actually regulate ethical behavior? Do people really change their behavior simply because the laws are there now?

Frankly, I don’t think so. Ethics laws are fringe issues because people will still do what they want to do. In the end, these regulations do not get to the bottom of the question of whether someone is acting ethically in good faith. If anything, the presence of ethics laws makes a person more conscious of their actions. It seems as if the spotlight on ethical behavior could invite the development of ways to get around the letter of the law, instead of focusing on its intent.

A person has to be optimistic to be in this business for as long as I have. And that is why, when I look at who to vote for, I look for people who I believe have character, commitment, ability to listen, and a willingness to accept that the legislative process is one of give and take – that not every issue is right or wrong or black and white.

What determines your vote? Do you think the actions of those you elected reflect a respect for the ethics laws and the public's desire for accountability?

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