Moral compass gone awry

Marketplace Staff Apr 27, 2006

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

KAI RYSSDAL: House Republicans had some trouble making up their minds today. First, they took a lobbying-and-ethics-refom bill to the Floor for debate. Then they yanked it. Then they put it back out there. Seems not all lawmakers are convinced the bill will do what it’s supposed to. Namely, stop the abuses we’ve all been reading about. After lobbyist Jack Abramoff confessed to trying to buy off members of Congress, everyone thought we’d see real reform. Commentator Jeff Birnbaum says don’t hold your breath.


JEFF BIRNBAUM: In February, a federal appeals court in Washington reversed the conviction of a former local police detective and, in the process, reminded us all how difficult bribery convictions can be.

Nelson Valdes was convicted four years back of accepting illegal gratuities from an FBI informant.

Valdes ran license plate numbers through a law enforcement database and accepted money in implicit exchange for the information.

But database runs weren’t a formal part of Valdes’ job, so the appeals court said he couldn’t be charged with taking a payoff in exchange for an official act.

The court ruled that his actions were probably unethical and against department procedures, but they weren’t enough to make them illegal as well.

That same logic, applied to the Abramoff prosecutions, could change the course of national elections this year.

After all, what are the formal duties of a lawmaker and what are the informal ones? Where can the line be drawn? Is anything short of passing a law to benefit a patron perfectly legal these days?

The Valdes case adds a whole new level of difficulty to that equation, and worse, further clouds the difference between right and wrong in the nation’s capital.

And that’s one place where the lines are too blurred as it is.

In Washington, it’s often said that the worst abuses of power are perfectly legal. Now, I guess, even once-illegal abuses could be legal, too.

I guess we’ve always known that people accused of a crime will grab at any straw to save their hides.

But something darker may be at play in Valdes.

I fear that our moral compass has spun so far that we no longer know it’s wrong for public officials to accept money in exchange for favors.

If that simple concept is lost, more than the rule of law is endangered.

When it comes to public trust in government, everything could be at risk.

RYSSDAL: Jeff Birnbaum is a columnist for The Washington Post.

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