making local government more ethical

Ethics Settlements and Admissions of Wrongdoing

“How he is treated is important. He’s going to fight for his name. Rather than accept language he disagrees with, he would rather fight it out. This is his life.”

These are the words of an adviser to congressman Charles Rangel about why his month-long settlement negotiations with the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct broke down.

The committee's lawyers had a different story to tell. According to an article in the New York Times, they said that the negotiations were "contentious and ... that a defiant Mr. Rangel continued to frustrate committee members with his unwillingness to admit wrongdoing in connection with several of the accusations against him."

Ethics settlements require an admission of wrongdoing. Outside of an ethics context, many forums allow wrongdoers to pay a fine in return for not having to admit to wrongdoing. But fines are not what ethics is about. Nor is an ethics settlement about fighting for your name.

It is individuals who believe that their life and their legacy are more important than the public trust who tend to violate ethics laws in the first place. Settlement would not necessarily require an admission that he broke the law, which is all he appears to care about, but rather that he did not act ethically. If he were to admit that what he did was wrong, whatever the law may say, that would likely be enough for the house ethics committee. The public needs to know that it's not about money, but about their representatives' ability to admit when they act unethically.

There is more involved here than merely guilt and innocence. What drawing out the settlement negotiations did, according to an article in The Hill, was delay the ethics process long enough so that the public hearing would not start until after Rangel's primary. The accusations will become public this week, I believe, and he can deny every one of them up until and past the time of the primary election.

Rangel lives in a safe Democratic district, so it is the primary that really counts. Rangel would still likely be re-elected by constituents who would be forgiving, considering all that he's done for them. But what he does not seem the slightest bit concerned about is the feelings of the rest of the country — all those millions of people he has not directly benefited.

I believe that ethics settlements should require admission of wrongdoing, as they do, for example, in Massachusetts and in the City Ethics Model Code (see §213.5). The public needs to know that an official acknowledges what he has done, and is not merely paying a fine in order to be exonerated. No one can trust someone who seeks to pay for his apparent innocence.

See my blog post on acknowledging ethics violations in settlements; also see my blog post on a way to prevent someone signing such a settlement from denying his wrongdoing afterwards.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics