By Rick Badie
A high school student was among 200 or so people at a rally Monday in Canton to demand the ouster of Cherokee County School Board member Kelly Marlow. Marlow recently surrendered on felony accusations of lying to authorities via a statement in which she claimed the superintendent tried to run down her and two colleagues with his vehicle.
Taylor Poole, a Woodstock High sophomore, was concerned that Marlow’s actions would cause a loss of school accreditation. She expressed sentiments any caring citizen could give credence to.
“As an elected official, I expect Ms. Marlow to be a role model,” she said. “And this behavior is unacceptable.”
Poole could have been talking about the alleged antics of too many other elected officials in quite a few metro Atlanta communities. Scandals and dysfunction currently seem in abundant supply when it comes to our public servants, even if most of them do their jobs without notoriety. Such instances are nothing new, as the other writers on this page point out. Still, we deserve better.
In 2011, a grand jury found that Gwinnett County commissioners overpaid well-connected developers by millions of dollars on land deals. Gwinnett commissioner Shirley Lasseter received a 33-month prison term for accepting $36,500 in bribes for her vote on a proposed real estate development. The Atlanta Public Schools CRCT test-cheating scandal led to the indictment of former Superintendent Beverly Hall, accused of leading a corrupt school system and using students’ inflated test scores to earn bonuses. She’s pleaded not guilty to the charges.
Now it’s DeKalb County’s turn. A 15-count indictment accuses CEO Burrell Ellis of strong-arming three vendors who work for the county into donating to his re-election campaign. Ellis says he’s innocent and will fight the accusations.
Last week, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that at least two more companies have hired attorneys or contacted the DeKalb County District Attorney’s office with similar complaints against the CEO. On Friday, this newspaper reported that two county officials said Ellis directed staff members to compile a vendor’s list of contract winners with the county. The indictment alleges that Ellis used the lists to solicit campaign contributions. A panel appointed by Gov. Nathan Deal will determine whether Ellis stays on the job, while the judicial system will determine his guilt or innocence.
Regardless of the outcome, one thing’s certain: Our public trust — already frayed by skepticism, cynicism and general indifference about government, its purpose and those in office — will suffer yet another substantial blow.
The damage occurs even as most all politicians perform their duties without running afoul of the law. Others bravely challenge the system to change entrenched ways. A worthy example occurred when some lawmakers bucked Gold Dome culture to press for ethics reform.
We give elected officials the reins to government in our cities and counties. The public entrusts them to render decisions, debate issues and exhibit behaviors aligned with the community’s greater good. In essence, they have our confidence, placed in their hands by ballot.
Too often, that authority and trust are abused. Ego, power trips, vendettas and greed can trump moral obligations, derailing virtuous public service.
When lapses in moral truth, wisdom and leadership take hold, the damage is hard to undo.
We, the betrayed taxpayers, suffer.
And that’s unacceptable.
By Rick Badie on behalf of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial board.
Honest governments work better than corrupt ones
By Patrick Allitt
DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis has been charged with extortion, theft, and conspiracy. Among the charges: that he pressured companies that do business with the county to give him campaign funds. He denies the charges.
There was a time in American history when city politicians responded to allegations of corruption by admitting them.
George Washington Plunkitt, a Tammany Hall boss in New York City, told journalist William Riordan in 1905 that he accepted “gifts” that looked a lot like bribes, used insider tips on property deals, and gave jobs to relatives and friends. He said he would be a fool not to: “I seen my opportunities and I took ‘em.” But he drew a sharp distinction between what he called “honest graft and dishonest graft,” saying that he never used blackmail or violence.
Others were not so squeamish. Boss Frank Hague ran Jersey City, N.J. for 30 years, from 1917 to 1947, “beating suspects … taking kickbacks, doling out no-show jobs to political supporters, getting the votes of the dead and buried, demanding tribute money.” In her wonderful book about growing up in Jersey City, “The Five-Finger Discount,” Helene Stapinsky writes that Hague “raised corruption to an art form.”
Hague’s contemporary, Tom Pendergast, ran Kansas City in the same way, building a personal empire, demanding big contributions from anyone who looked for city contracts, and deciding who would and would not be elected to office. His most famous pick was Harry S Truman for U.S. Senator.
Bosses like Hague and Pendergast demanded absolute loyalty. By the time Pendergast died in 1945, Truman had made a spectacular ascent, all the way to the White House. His advisors told him not to go to the funeral of his old patron, who had been convicted of tax evasion, but Truman understood what old-style politics were all about, and showed up. “He was always my friend and I have always been his,” said Truman, the only elected official in attendance.
Recent cases in the metro Atlanta area have been modest by Hague’s and Pendergast’s standards. But they are far from unusual.
Former Georgia superintendent of schools Linda Schrenko embezzled federal funds earmarked for deaf and disabled kids. She served more than seven years in prison. Gwinnett County former commissioner Shirley Lasseter, and DeKalb County’s ex-Deputy Police Chief Donald Frank, are both serving prison terms for bribery. It seems a rare issue of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that carries no stories all about shady political deals and elected officials under indictment.
In fact, political corruption is as American as apple pie. Some historians have even made the argument that it has a good side.
Ward heelers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, like Plunkitt in New York, bought voters’ loyalty by finding them jobs, providing shelter and food when they were destitute, and re-housing those who were the victims of fire and eviction. Ethnic bosses helped get their immigrant countrymen’s feet onto the ladder of American opportunity, using the languages they had brought from Italy, Poland, Russia, and the Slavic lands. Votes for favors? Sure!
History shows that corrupt government can work, but it also shows that uncorrupted government works a whole lot better. Honesty is the best policy — it costs less, builds public trust rather than corroding it, and offers a good example to rising generations.
It takes a lot of self-discipline to run a successful political campaign. Decade after decade of experience suggests that it then takes a whole lot more self-discipline to resist the temptations that confront every elected official.
Patrick Allitt is the Cahoon Family professor of American History at Emory University.
Corruption’s not new, but it is less common now
By Edward Queen
One of the great things about being trained as an historian is that no matter the topic, one can authoritatively state, “It really is not new, you know.” We can readily say that about the most recent spate of corruption scandals that currently surround us. From the APS cheating scandal to the indictment of DeKalb County CEO Burrell Ellis, as well as political scandals from Albany, N.Y., to Albany, Ga., we seem to be continuously inundated with story after story detailing or alleging corruption, malfeasance, and greed at all levels of government and across the political spectrum.
The seeming ubiquity of corruption has led to cynicism and despair among the American public. How often do we hear “everybody does it,” “they are all corrupt?” Well, they are not. While the United States’ rating on Transparency International’s Corruption Index, 19, is lower than one might wish, it does place the U.S. above 88 percent of all the countries of the world, including France, Austria and Ireland.
Politics today is notably freer of the blatant corruption and illegality of decades past. The machine politics of Tammany Hall in New York, the Pendergasts in Kansas City, and Daley in Chicago have all gone by the wayside. The creation of formal civil service examinations also eliminated much of the sources of corruption that marked previous decades. Activities that were standard practice in the past are now under increasing scrutiny and even legislation as we recognize the potential problems caused by conflicts of interest, unlimited gifts and offers of entertainment.
Despite these facts, it is incontrovertible that illegal and unethical behavior continues through all levels of American politics. This ongoing illegality combined with the increased centrality of money in electoral politics has a corrosive effect on the United States’ political functioning. Itundermines Americans’ trust in government and its in officials. The decline in trust produces three major consequences.
First, it undermines the public’s confidence in the legitimacy of governmental decisions and policies. If people believe, rightly or wrongly, that laws are passed, contracts are signed, and individuals are hired on bases other than merit, then their willingness to accept what is done diminishes. Government becomes an illegitimate entity against which they must protect themselves, whether through cheating on their taxes, bribing officials or withholding support. The last can manifest itself in the refusal by the electorate to support tax increases, bond issues or infrastructure projects.
Second, as trust declines so does people’s willingness to engage actively and productively in the political process. As a college professor for nearly 30 years, I’m greatly disturbed by the declining interest in elective office by my students. When candidates for a major scholarship aimed at individuals with an interest in public service, not one student mentioned elective office as her or his desired way of serving the public.
When the best and brightest step away from seeking elective office, even as an aspirational desire, it says something disturbing and worrisome about politics and peoples’ relationship to it. This cannot bode well for the future of the republic.
This brings me to the third point: When a significant number of people pull away from engagement and involvement with politics, the space they leave is filled by hyper-partisans and fortune hunters. The results only aggravate the situation by driving people even further from engagement.
So while I regret the fact of indictments of public officials and the publication of ethical violations, I also welcome them. They remove corruption from the body of politics and serve as a warning to others. We as citizens need to be more vocal in calling for stronger ethics legislation and, even more importantly, stronger enforcement, as well as financing for that enforcement. We need to honor those who speak out against wrongdoing and unethical behavior.
Instead of cynics we need reformers, for after all it is our government, our money and our choice.
Edward Queen is director of the D. Abbott Turner Program in Ethics and Servant Leadership and coordinator of undergraduate studies at Emory University’s Center for Ethics.