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Native Intelligence
If it's legal, who cares about ethics?
(Published July 1, 2002)

By DIANA WINTHROP

In 1984, I was a political reporter assigned to cover Congress, and I have never forgotten an interview I did with a controversial Republican senator.

In response to my question of whether his actions were ethical, the senator said: "According to the law, my actions are legal. I don't care about ethics."

At the time, his response surprised me. But after 25 years in the news business, I am - unfortunately - not surprised or stunned by such answers anymore.

My very dog-eared Webster's Collegiate Dictionary defines ethics as a set of moral principles - the discipline of dealing with what is good and bad, and with moral duty and obligation.

I recently realized that for the last 10 months my columns have not railed at illegal activities; instead, I have attempted to shine the light on unethical behavior by public officials. Not just the ones elected to office, but those who are engaged in political activity as well. I, too, often find that during interviews people of all political stripes don't seem to care about ethics, only whether their actions are legal.

Now that the election season is in full swing, ethics have been thrown out the window and replaced by lawyers who make sure campaigns are "legal." Forget about ethics. Lawyers who are well-versed in campaign finance law earn their fees by making sure their candidates don't break the law. The pervasive attitude is that campaigns are "war" and under the rules of war, ethical behavior is nonexistent.

I have been told that I have been a little too hard on D.C. Democratic Party Chairman Norman Neverson. I don't think I have been hard enough. Neverson is a jovial man whose enthusiastic support of Mayor Anthony Williams is his moniker. He is not a malevolent or evil individual, but in many instances, like the mayor, his actions are not illegal, but unethical, and I am not sure Norm gets it.

Recently, I saw an advertisement for a mortgage company on WUSA-Channel 9 during its one-hour local news show that airs from 9 to 10 a.m. during the week. The 30-second spot for Mortgage Store USA opens with a lovely picture of Norm with his family, filmed in front of his Ward 4 home. He says, "Hi! I'm Norm Neverson" - and as he says his name, in large white letters under the picture, Neverson is identified as the chairman of the D.C. Democratic Party. Neverson continues to tout the loan company Mortgage Store USA and how he received a great deal when he went to re-finance his home.

I have no idea whether Neverson was paid for the testimonial, and I do not begrudge his making a healthy living. But every single member of the state committee, both elected and appointed, must be furious. The television ad is not illegal. Neverson being paid is not illegal, and using Neverson's title is not illegal either. It is terribly unethical, though, to connect Neverson's title with his commercial endorsement.

The use of Neverson's official title gives the impression that the entire D.C. Democratic Party endorses Mortgage Store USA.

Gwendolyn Hemphill, co-chairman of the mayor's re-election campaign and a member of the state committee, agrees. She says the identification of Neverson as party chairman "needs to come off. It gives the impression that the party is sanctioning Mortgage Store USA."

Neverson could be an innocent victim of an unscrupulous company and he may have no idea that they intended to use his official title. I really doubt it. The mortgage company is legally registered in the District to do business. The firm does not show up on any list of predatory lenders, though surely the ad agency that produced the ad is knowledgeable regarding the use of titles with a spokesman or with the client. Repeated calls to the mortgage company and to Neverson for comment received no response.

Neverson, the mortgage company and the ad's producers remind me of the three monkeys: "See no evil. Hear no evil. Speak no evil." It makes me sad.

***

Last month, Mayor Williams told supporters he learned a lot from the Connie Morella debacle when he insisted on holding a fund-raiser for the Montgomery County Republican and was unapologetic when there was an uproar from not only the local Democratic Party, but from the national party as well. After a series of meetings and almost apologizing, the mayor set out to re-establish his Democratic Party ties. He lent his name and position to endorse Democrats and has hosted successful fund-raisers for them as well.

Moderate Congresswoman Morella is well-liked by Democrats and, like Neverson, is considered a nice person. But Morella's conscious effort to separate herself from her Republican Party identification, preferring instead to be pitched as an independent, is unethical. The issue has also not been lost on Williams.

Williams' campaign kickoff announcement June 22 was followed by the sighting of the mayor's first campaign posters. The minimalist poster design - in red, white and blue - says "Mayor Williams 2002." It doesn't say "Re-elect," "Four More Years" or even "Vote Sept. 10th." And, like Morella distances herself from her Republican Party roots, Williams is distancing himself from his party affiliation by not using it. After all, it is the election season and in the rules of war, "ethical" is not the operative word.

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator