When I received news that former Attorneys General Mark Shurtleff and John Swallow had been arrested for alleged illegalities associated with their office, I felt a little sick. Serious allegations against these two men have been in the news for over a year now. And, frankly, I’m not surprised at this turn of events. But I know these men, and it’s a bit discomforting to actually hear they’ve been arrested.
Many people seem to think that everyone in politics knows everyone else intimately. We don’t. Typically, we know each other through the work we do. While my first encounter with Mark Shurtleff nearly a decade ago didn’t leave a good impression for me, I was pleased to get to know him better over the immigration debate. I found him to be intelligent, passionate and convincing on the issue. I was impressed he had authored a book about Dred Scott. I grew to like him personally.
I knew John Swallow through a mutual friend who had enlisted us some years ago to support his charity. Despite current allegations making it seem like Shurtleff and Swallow are two peas in a pod, I found the two men to be nothing alike. Swallow always seemed too guarded and stiff for an elected official – like there was more to him than appeared.
Last year, I was one of the first voices calling for John Swallow to step down from his position as attorney general. I said back then, “A person of integrity holding public office would put that office before himself.” I mentioned at the time, not knowing all of the current allegations, that the office of the state’s top cop could ill afford the perception of corruption. It now seems early suspicions may be correct.
More often than not, corruption in public office comes with opportunity. In my estimation, it’s opportunity, not foremost bad character, that pushes elected officials to make poor choices – not that some people don’t need much of an opportunity to break the law. In the cases of Shurtleff and Swallow, I’ve argued that their problems have surfaced because of a culture of corruption. My guess is that if they did commit these wrongs, neither man could perceive clearly what they were doing – but I believe they knew in their hearts they were crossing some ethical boundaries. But a culture of corruption permits elected officials’ better judgment to be obscured.
The push for ethics reform inside state government has been a mixed bag of motivations. Most legislators don’t like to discuss ethics reform because it could create the appearance that corruption exists when it doesn’t. Progressive partisans pushing for ethics reform just want to make the Republican majority look bad. But honest ethics reform has a purpose and that purpose is to stifle a culture of corruption. The first step in protecting the integrity of our public institutions is to admit that this integrity needs constant protection.
The biggest mistake we make in discussing public ethics is to deny that we need ethics laws because nearly everyone holding office is good and decent. We have laws for a reason – not because they stop people from doing bad things, but because they help establish a culture of how we should behave, a culture of high expectations and rule of law.
I feel sad, if not sickened, watching Shurtleff and Swallow being carted off to jail. I feel worse thinking that their experiences won’t provide an instructive lesson for other elected officials and lobbyists. I hope I’m wrong.
For Sutherland Institute, I’m Paul Mero. Thanks for listening.
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