By Joe Mazzola, CEP Executive Director

I’ve been following the trial of former Congressman William Jefferson in the Washington Post.  (You probably remember the case. He was found with $90,000 stashed in his freezer.  The money, marked by the FBI, was allegedly to be used to bribe the VP of another country. Jefferson was charged with 16 counts of bribery, racketeering and money laundering. ) Two recent articles really got me riled up. They summarize closing arguments by the defense counsel.

Basically, the attorney said his client was “stupid” and “exercised awful judgment,” but he was not a criminal. The lawyer made a distinction between ethics and the law, saying “prosecutors tried to turn what amounted to ethics violations into crimes. They’re trying to bend the law, stretch the facts to turn what is not a crime into a crime.”

Regarding the Congressman’s use of public office to further business deals for himself and family (One allegation is that $400,000 in bribe money went to companies he set up in different family members’ names), the lawyer came back to this point. Yes, he admitted, the Congressman did rely on help from his staff with business matters, and yes, he and his aides did take certain “liberties.” However, the lawyer then added “What is ethical is not the issue in this case.”

Finally, the defense counsel attempted to muddy the waters more by acting as though every politician in Washington was on trial. He said, “The point here is what members of Congress are expected to do in their jobs. If seeking political help was a crime, you could lock up half of Washington, DC.” He likened some of what his client did as “something to be expected of members of Congress,” nothing more than the “customary use of the office.”

Ironically, there is another case taking place, where I heard more about the distinction between what is ethical versus legal. The case involves the former Mayor of DC, Marion Barry, who is now a city councilman. He put his girlfriend on the payroll and doesn’t think it’s a problem. He was quoted in the paper saying basically “if it’s not illegal, then it’s okay.”

Personally, I believe all of this business about making a distinction between what’s unethical versus what’s illegal is flat wrong. In my view, all elected officials hold positions of great trust. They should all be people of good character and simply do the right thing for the right reasons.

Unfortunately, what is described above is the exact opposite, and, regrettably, far too common in today’s society.  However, it does make a good case for why we need intentional character education in our schools.  All of us need to encourage young people to do the right thing for the right reasons…and model it in our own lives.  The more young people see adults quibbling between what is ethical and legal, the more they are apt to take the same approach regarding their own misbehaviors.

Remember, as President Abraham Lincoln said “The philosophy in the school room in one generation will be the philosophy of government in the next.”  Wouldn’t it be nice if “customary use of the office” meant maintaining the very highest ethical standards?

Thanks for encouraging young people to do the right thing!