Tone deaf on political ethics

After 38 years in public office, Lt. Gov. Brad Owen has identified the cruelest sort of injustice: The kind that affects you personally.

Owen has expressed disappointment over state Senate inaction on a bill to assist elected officials who incur legal costs from ethics investigations. Sympathizers who wish to donate to a “defense fund” now are limited to $50 each; the lieutenant governor wanted the amount raised to $500.

The tenfold increase, Owen argued, would make it the same as campaign donations. (As if answering an ethics complaint is somehow equivalent to waging an election campaign.)

Last July, the state’s Ethics Board determined there was “reasonable cause” to pursue a complaint about Owen’s use of taxpayer resources to operate a youth charity. The nonprofit Strategies for Youth collected donations from Olympia lobbyists, paid Owen’s wife a modest salary and furnished his family with a $33,000 truck.

Owen, who estimates he’ll spend $20,000 to $30,000 on lawyers, was counting on Senate colleagues to make it easier for him to solicit financial support. But, he insists, the Ethics Defense Fund bill really wasn’t about his specific case, it was about fair treatment for anyone in a similar predicament.

This sort of tone-deaf rationalization helps us comprehend how the lieutenant governor managed to get himself into an ethics jam. With the legislative session now over, perhaps he can find some quiet time to contemplate a few critical points.

First, all ethics — personal, professional, political — come down to individual responsibility. We don’t need a system that enables or encourages an officeholder to run to deep-pocketed friends, partisan allies or lobbyists for a convenient bailout.

Second, ethics violations should bring enough of a hardship that political leaders don’t dance too cleverly or too close to the line. When in doubt, steer clear of even unethical appearances. And Owen’s case does not appear to be trivial or trumped up; like most ethics complaints, it went through administrative review. If the ethics board had not found “reasonable cause,” Owen would not be hiring lawyers.

Finally, the lieutenant governor presides over the Senate. There is something unsavory about Owen approaching his legislative pals for a bill clearly intended to benefit Owen himself. If any of us are wondering about his ethical compass, this tells us plenty.

Public Radio’s Austin Jenkins reports that the Senate majority leader asked his wife’s opinion about the bill. “My wife says it looks bad,” Sen. Mark Schoesler said. “She’s a pretty good test of things.”

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