making local government more ethical

An In-Depth Look at Unethical Leadership

It is rare for the news media to look at government ethics any more deeply than a particular scandal, usually one involving law-breaking, money, sex, or a public argument between parties or within a party. The vice-presidential nomination of Sarah Palin has led to the most in-depth look at government ethics for a long time.

An article in yesterday's New York Times sets out a number of the hallmarks of unethical leadership. It is not important whether Ms. Palin actually did what people have accused her of doing (spokespeople have denied or refused to respond to just about everything). What is important is this opportunity to see what unethical leadership looks like, even where its elements are legal and involve neither money nor sex. What it looks like is a pattern of actions that blur the differences between personal and governmental interests.

The governor is said to have appointed school friends to posts for which they have no qualifications and at salaries far higher than they had had before. She is said to demonize those who disagree with her and to pursue personal vendettas in a government context. Her administration is said to put "a premium on loyalty and secrecy," including the use of personal e-mail addresses in order to circumvent possible subpoenas. She is said to have made FOI requests impossibly expensive when they would show that she has been making misrepresentations. She is said to have ordered city employees not to talk to the press. She is said to have made major budget decisions with her budget director and her husband, without consulting with legislative leaders or mayors. She is said to rarely respond to mayors' requests for meetings, and does not give warning of her decisions to legislators. When she does meet with politicians, her husband (not a government official) is often in attendance (for more on her husband's role, see the companion article).

She is said to have bought herself an SUV with city money. She is said to have conducted her gubernatorial campaign from her mayoral office. Her special assistant is said to frequently interact with the governor's children. In less than two years in office, she has reportedly spent 312 nights at home, about 600 miles away from her office. And last, but not least, is the well-known accusation that she pressured an official to fire a state trooper going through a divorce with the governor's sister.

Politics is full of pettiness, but this is more unprofessional than unethical. Unethical leadership essentially announces that there is little distinction between the personal and the political, that when a person has been elected to office, they become one and the same thing. It is approprate to use the office for personal ends, to reward old friends, to harm old enemies, to protect and reward oneself, to close out anyone not in the inner circle.

Unethical leaders trust few people, and turn political issues into personal issues, making them more difficult to resolve. Unethical leaders work on fear, using threats, especially the threat of being closed out, and firing people to make it clear that they mean business. The most frightening statement in the article comes from the governor's campaign manager when she first ran for mayor in 1996: "I'm still proud of Sarah, but she scares the bejeebers out of me."

When the Republican speaker of the house hired a classmate of the governor's, who had been fired by the governor when she had learned "that he had fallen in love with another longtime friend," the governor's husband called the speaker and said he was unhappy with the hiring. "The Palin family gets upset at personal issues," the speaker told the Times, "and at our level, they want to strike back."

A conservative radio host and longtime friend of the governor's supported her vocally in her bid for governor, but when he later criticized her desire to raise taxes on oil companies, he found himself branded a "hater." "It is part of a pattern, Mr. Fagan said, in which Ms. Palin characterizes critics as 'bad people who are anti-Alaska.'"

This approach to government rubs off on others. For example, the Chamber of Commerce in the governor's city asked its members to refer all calls from the press to the governor's office. One city councilwoman said she thought, "I don't remember giving up my First Amendment rights." But most likely other members did what they were told, fearful of the consequences.

Fear is the chief result of unethical leadership. And lack of trust in government by citizens, as well as lack of trust within government, which can be equally damaging, are the other most serious results.

Sarah Palin, as pictured in this article, is unfortunately not out of the ordinary, although perhaps a bit extreme. This picture of her shows that not only machines can be closed and based on fear. Those who fight them and win can take on the very same characteristics. The article also shows that people who act in this manner are very successful. The White House has had numerous unethical leaders who cannot distinguish themselves from their offices, who distort their offices by acting personally rather than officially, and who thereby poison their organizations with fear and strife, thereby failing to fulfill their obligations as government officials.

Update: An Associated Press investigation of Gov. Palin's actions as mayor of Wasilla adds to the picture of unethical leadership, this time solely at the local level. Although she was up front about her interests, this did not stop her from participating in the matters. Among the additional hallmarks of unethical leadership are the following:

Getting zoning variances in order to sell a home.

Loosening rules for snow-machine races, when she and her husband owned a snow-machine store and he was a champion racer (she did recuse herself from voting on a grant for a race).

Accepting gifts from local merchants.

These are relatively minor, and typical, acts in a small town. But they set a tone of Help Yourself for all officials and employees.

Robert Wechsler
Director of Research, City Ethics