Thursday, September 24, 2009

What Price Votes? (or book adoption?)

When I started my first full-time teaching job at a community college in South Carolina in 1992, we weren't allowed to accept any gifts or anything of any value at all. When book reps wanted to buy the department lunch or a box of donuts, we had to say no. If a student wanted to give us a gift, we were supposed to say, "I so appreciate the thought, but I can't accept this" (full disclosure: an older student crocheted an angel for the top of a Christmas tree for me, and I didn't have the heart to reject it).

Why this strict line? Because a few months earlier, several state legislators had been arrested for selling their votes. Many of them had sold their votes for under $1000. As a struggling grad student who shivered through the winter and sweated through the summer because I could only afford an electric bill that went so high, I'm not sure what shocked me most: the fact that legislators sold their votes or that they sold them so cheap.

In response to this scandal, the state legislature passed strict rules about what state employees could and could not accept. As a naive younger person, I assumed these rules would take care of the ethics problem.

Now, of course, I know that there are many different ways to cheat the system. Now I'm surprised when something so brazen as accepting money in cash makes headlines. Don't these people know how to hide their interests in blind trusts?

I have this on the brain because yesterday, some of our key local politicians were busted in an FBI sting. They, too, sold their votes or influence. They, too, accepted pitiful sums of money. Have these idiots not been paying attention? Don't they know that they'll be caught? I've been watching politicians arrested for this kind of thing since I was a little girl. If Richard Nixon couldn't get away with his crimes, what makes these people think that they will?

Hubris, I suppose. Or, more scary, the fact that so many people probably do get away with these ethics violations. Perhaps it should be more surprising that anyone is ever arrested at all.

And then, of course, there's the larger question. I'm always shocked at how little money is involved. So, let's play a game. If you were going to abandon your moral self and throw your ethics away, what would the price be?

It probably starts small. A free lunch here, a pair of tickets there. Before you know it, you're accepting cash in a bag that contains leftovers from lunch, as one of our school board members is accused of doing.

Perhaps those ethics rules that governed state employees way back in 1992 weren't so crazy after all.

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