making local government more ethical

Loyalty and Plausible Deniability on the 40th Anniversary of Watergate

Yesterday was the 40th anniversary of the Watergate break-in. For those too young to remember, President Nixon's re-election campaign had people break in to the Democratic National Committee's offices in the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C.

According to an editorial in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette yesterday, one of the lesser known people involved in the break-in spoke in Fort Wayne recently about the ethics of his involvement. Hugh Sloan was the campaign treasurer, and he was told to give $83,000 in $100 bills to G. Gordon Liddy, who led the actual break-in.

When he was asked why, he was told (presumably by John Mitchell, the former Attorney General who was running the campaign), “I don’t want to know, and you don’t want to know either.” This is what is known as "plausible deniability":  I didn't know anything about it. I just did what I was told. This is a tactic favored by many lawyers.

Sloan said about this, “You really do have the right, and sometimes the obligation, to ask why. And when you don’t get an answer, that’s the red flag.” In other words, you can deny knowing what is going on. But you can't deny not wanting to know what was going on. The question is, especially in government, Do you have an obligation to know what is going on, so that you can make a responsible decision? Sloan seems to think you do, and I agree.

The most important lesson Sloan shared with his audience regarded his decision to tell the truth about what occurred. “I came to the conclusion:  I didn’t leave the team, the team left me. Loyalty and respect have to be earned. If anyone asks you to sacrifice your integrity, they don’t deserve your loyalty or respect.”

I put this another way. If someone asks you to do something illegal or wrong, he is not being loyal to you. Loyalty is a two-way street, and there is no reason to do something wrong out of loyalty to someone who feels no loyalty to you, who is willing to corrupt you or even bring you down with him.

But it is best to recognize this not when one is going to be a witness, but at the time of the event that might lead to a trial in the future. When a superior or a government attorney offers an official the gift of plausible deniability, the official should turn it down. Government officials have an obligation to know why they do what they do. If an acceptable reason is not forthcoming, the superior or attorney should be turned down. If he plays the loyalty card, he should be told that loyalty is a mutual thing. People are loyal to each other, and loyalty includes openness. Otherwise, the official is being manipulated, used for purposes he doesn't even understand.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics