A High-Level Official's Obligation to Seek Out the Truth
Wed, 2012-11-07 10:00
Did the first selectman have an obligation to the public not to accept his department head's word, but instead dig deeper to find out the truth, or have this done by the appropriate authorities?
I raise this issue because yesterday the mayor of Montreal resigned, and in his resignation speech he insisted that he knew nothing about the serious ongoing corruption in his city's government for the eleven years he had been in office. According to an article in yesterday's Montreal Gazette, he said that his trust in his aides was betrayed, that the need for him to resign was an "unbearable injustice," but that he had to "assume full responsibility" even though he knew nothing about what was happening and was told again and again that what was being said and written were only rumors.
The mayor has been accused of willful blindness to the city government's procurement, development, and campaign finance corruption, involving not only officials, contractors, and developers, but also Mafia figures (see my blog posts on what occurred, three of them from 2009), but let's assume that the mayor wanted to know, but simply didn't try very hard to find out.
It was good that the mayor finally did resign. Taking responsibility after the fact is a good thing. Too often, high-level officials in the midst of a scandal insist on staying put, even if it is bad for the city or county.
But it's far better to act as soon as possible, to get to the bottom of reports and rumors, to treat them not as frivolous, a threat to one's power, or a partisan attempt to undermine one's administration, but as allegations that need either to be shown to be false or prosecuted. The earlier such reports and rumors are dealt with, the more likely they will only involve ethical misconduct rather than criminal misconduct, and the more easily ethics rules can be enforced or amended, and the city's ethics environment be improved. When a mayor, manager, and council allow misconduct to continue, this sends a clear message that the misconduct is accepted by these officials or that these officials are too weak or afraid to even try to stop it. The mayor, manager, and council members thus enable the misconduct rather than preventing or stopping it, as the public rightly expects them to do.
What Montreal's mayor said about trusting other officials shows a confusion of person and office. High-level officials view those around them through their personal relationships, which leads them to trust them in a personal manner. But this sort of trust, which is fine in one's private life, is not sufficient in government. A mayor is not just a person who trusts other people. He is someone with an obligation to ensure that corruption does not occur in his administration.
When people around you deny reports and rumors, and keep pointing their fingers at others, you do not have the luxury of trusting them personally. You have the obligation to act like a mayor and get to the bottom of the reports and rumors. You have to demand evidence and to hand matters over to an ethics commission, the criminal justice system, or an independent investigator.
Everyone agrees that Montreal's mayor was not on the take. The same is true of my town's first selectman. But corruption is not only about profiting financially from misconduct. Corruption also includes allowing such misconduct to occur, especially when one is in a responsible position such as mayor, manager, or council member. High-level officials are also responsible for corruption when they fail to seek rules and procedures that will prevent corruption from occurring.
Doing nothing may be the safest thing in the short term, and the best way to prevent divisions in one's administration, but it is the worst thing for a community in the long run. Montreal's now former mayor, who insists he has always been anti-corruption, should stop talking about injustice and start talking about the ways in which Montreal's ethics program and environment can be improved so that what happened under his administration won't happen again.
Director of Research, City Ethics