making local government more ethical

What We Can Learn from Robert Bork's Failure to Deal Responsibly with a Conflict Situation

The death of Robert Bork is a good time to learn from the biggest mistake in his life, one that may have cost him a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. It involved his failure to deal responsibly with a superior's conflict of interest, and his own, since his superior forced his conflict situation onto Bork himself.

When, on October 20, 1973, President Nixon asked Solicitor General Bork to fire Archibald Cox from his position as Special Prosecutor investigating Nixon and those working for him, two Attorneys General had already refused to follow Nixon's order and instead gave him their resignation (Elliot Richardson and William Ruckelshaus).

The reason they did this was that Nixon had a serious conflict of interest. He had a personal interest in preventing the investigation from going forward. It would appear to the world that he was protecting his personal interest in preventing incriminating information from being found by the special prosecutor.

Bork knew that two men had given up the position of Attorney General rather than follow the President's order. He knew that this refusing to follow the order was the responsible way to deal with the President's conflict. But he followed the order and became acting Attorney General for several weeks.

It appears to be Bork's beliefs that led him to mishandle the most infamous conflict of interest situation of the postwar era. He believed in a powerful executive. This belief appears to have led him to confuse person and office. Whatever the power of the Presidency, this does not mean that an individual sitting in the office must not deal responsibly with his conflicts of interest. No one is above government ethics. In fact, the higher an individual's office, the more harm his ethical misconduct does.

At the local level, it's rarely beliefs that lead officials to accept orders from conflicted superiors. It's personal loyalty and the fear that saying no will seriously harm one's career. But as happened with Robert Bork, saying yes can also harm one's career.

No one should put a subordinate in such a lose-lose position. No one should force his own conflict onto others.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics