making local government more ethical

Innocence and the Difference Between Criminal and Ethics Enforcement

Is it enough for a local official to be "not guilty"? This is the question that has been raised with respect to a Tamarac, FL city commissioner who was found not guilty of bribery in December, according to a column by Michael Mayo this week in the Sun-Sentinel.

Soon after she was found not guilty, the governor reinstated her to her position, and next week she will be back on the city commission. However, jurors say they feel she should not go back to the commission. The reasons point to an important difference between criminal and ethics enforcement.

One juror is quoted as saying, "If I could convict a person for being stupid, she'd be at the top of my list. … If I was her I wouldn't go back [to politics]. It's not for her. ... I don't think she knew what she was doing."

According to the column, the six jurors "apparently weren't convinced that she acted 'with corrupt intent.'" A principal reason they came to this conclusion is that the defense portrayed the commissioner as clueless, as not realizing what was going on. The jurors felt there was a reasonable doubt that the commissioner had corrupt intent, not that she didn't do anything wrong.

Cluelessness is not a defense in government ethics enforcement, nor should it be. A government official has an obligation to know what's going on. All that has to be proved is that she accepted an illegal gift. Her intent and cluelessness are only mitigating circumstances in determining the penalty.

An official who accepts an illegal gift may be innocent, but only in the sense that a child is innocent, not in the sense that people use this word as equivalent to "not guilty."

Of course, an official can learn from her mistakes and change from an innocent to a knowing, mature public servant. But sadly, this does not seem to be the case here. The 66-year-old commissioner is quoted as saying, "The word innocent is the word innocent. It's done, and I'm going back to work and that's the end of it."

See my other blog post on Tamarac, from two years ago.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics