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Native Intelligence
Mayor's 'ethical chasm' widens
(Published August 12, 2002)

By DIANA WINTHROP

After the mayor took office in 1999, he was fined $1,000 for failing to report $40,000 in income he earned from then-NationsBank and the now infamous Arthur Andersen accounting firm for consulting work he performed during his 1998 mayoral campaign.

Williams said it was an oversight, and most people accepted his excuse for the ethical lapse. The mayor was, after all, "the reform candidate" in the 1998 election.

But by the summer of 2000, Williams - emboldened by his overall high public approval rating - was slapped once again. This time, it was for using city employees along with money raised through a nonprofit group for his campaign to change the make-up of the school board. Williams was told to immediately cease this practice, but was cocky and furious at the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics and vowed to appeal it. His "end justifies the means" approach to government was beginning to trouble not just his opponents, but some of his supporters.

Earlier this year, the final straw came for some of those supporters, when it was revealed in a report from Inspector General Charles Maddox that the mayor and some his executive staff members raised $1.5 million through a number of nonprofit groups under the guise that the money was to help the city's at-risk children. The money, it turns out, was used to send Williams to the Republican and Democratic national conventions and another series of events that had nothing to do with helping children.

The "reform" moniker was gone. Williams didn't apologize, and he blamed his staff.

His supporters say these ethical lapses, as well as his recent petition debacle, are all behind him and we should forgive him.

I like to think I am a compassionate, forgiving individual. But when it comes to hearing another excuse for another ethical lapse on the part of the mayor, I am stubborn. He won't find forgiveness from me. I haven't received my mea culpa letter as of the writing of this column, but I have heard of the contents and I, unfortunately, question its sincerity.

The mayor reminds me of a serial drunk driver who is back on the streets again because he "sincerely apologizes" for his irresponsible behavior.

The laundry list of ethical lapses are proof enough, in my judgment, that Williams has an ethical chasm - not merely a blind spot - that he refuses to close. He is a practitioner of "situational ethics." He is really, really sorry - until next time.

A public broadcasting colleague of mine is, like the mayor, a practicing Catholic. I can't speak to the mayor's commitment to his faith, but my friend and colleague became an obligate in the Benedictine order a few years ago. Morality and ethics are dominant issues in his life.

My friend reminded me that Catholics seek forgiveness as part of the act of confession. My friend says "repentance actually comes from the Latin to 'rethink.' A person seeking forgiveness needs to rethink and imagine yourself not doing it again." So far, my colleague adds, he hasn't seen any indication that the "mayor is truly repenting for his behavior."

Another friend of mine, who is a political appointee in the D.C. government, told me about a meeting she attended on Aug. 5 at the Washington Convention Center.

When my friend arrived, she was asked to sign in and give her voting precinct. While there was no indication that the meeting was mandatory for D.C. employees, she estimates that there were 300 to 350 people there. What troubled her, she said, was that it was "implied" and expected that she would work for the mayor's campaign for re-election.

Among those attending the meeting were the mayor's chief of staff, Kelvin Robinson; the mayor's legal counsel, Grace Lopes; Milou Carolan, director of the D.C. Office of Personnel; Ted Carter, the mayor's new campaign manager; and Mayor Williams.

According to my friend, it was the kind of meeting that should have happened months ago, before Williams once again got himself in hot water. The mayor asked the attendees to pay close attention to the laws governing city personnel performing campaign work.

My friend, who has served the city well in previous administrations, said she wasn't put out by the request for her to use some personal leave days to work for the mayor. As a more senior employee, she has accrued sufficient days so her election day work won't cost her any money. However, she says she is uncomfortable for many of her colleagues who don't have the necessary leave time available, who feel the pressure of needing to work the polls for their boss, Mayor Williams, even if it costs them money. She called the meeting hypocritical because, she said, the pressure is on for D.C. employees to do campaign work for the mayor even if it is illegal.

But the real issue is whether the mayor's ethical chasm will close once the campaign is over and, as most suspect, he will be re-elected for another term.

My Benedictine friend called the other day before he left for a conference in Michigan to express his amazement at recent events. "It's not that Mayor Williams shoots himself in the foot," he said. "It's how quickly the mayor reloads that amazes me."

I couldn't say it better.

Copyright 2002, The Common Denominator