Public ethics: Allegation and resignation
A little over two weeks ago, Ohio Attorney General Dave Yost filed a legal complaint against City Council Member Doug Smith, alleging misuse of charitable funds. The complaint alleged that “Smith’s actions were willful, wanton, and in reckless disregard of the legal rights of the charitable beneficiaries of MHR [charitable entity].” Smith has responded by saying the allegations are “not true,” and “I intend to work through the court process, as this is a civil matter containing accusations, not facts.” Since the filing of the complaint, I have received two direct requests from the public, independent from one another as far as I can tell, asking that I join them in calling for Smith’s resignation from Council. One of these requests was received by email, sent to the whole of Council, while the second, a hardcopy letter delivered via USPS, was written and sent specifically to me.
The letter sent directly to me asserted that “A member of City Council should not be in a position to have been alleged to inappropriately and unlawfully convert an organization’s resources to their own use.” The letter then broadened its claims, stating that since I had sent a letter to the public last fall about campaign finance, in order to be consistent, I now needed to call for Smith’s resignation (“In fidelity to the principle espoused in your letter from the 2019 campaign, you must now demand the resignation of Councilman Smith.”). My response to this letter is pasted directly below. The key sentence is probably this: “Forcing the resignation of elected officials on the basis of allegations alone—no matter how certain the charges may appear—would for me set an unwelcome and dangerous precedent.” And below this letter, as reference, I have attached my public letter from the fall of 2019.
I share this in the spirit of transparency, which, in this case, refers not to actions, but to judgments and the values and principles underlying them. I trust the public to make its own judgments, whether agreeing or not with my own thinking, when so informed.
Comments and criticisms are welcome at email@example.com
May 4, 2020
I received your letter early last week and have now had a chance to give it a thorough read. Here are my thoughts:
- I appreciate and applaud your civic-mindedness, and I am glad that you sent me a direct correspondence, allowing a reply, regarding the serious issue of ethics and public officials, and, specifically, what you term “Requested Resignation of Councilman Doug Smith.”
- I agree with you that the charges against Smith are very serious, but where you and I quickly diverge revolves around the fact that the charges are “alleged” only at this point in time. It appears to me that you have already found him guilty—by what powers or process of yours you do not state—whereas I believe that all of the facts, including testimony from the accused, need to be brought forward before the public through an established legal process before I can form a determinative judgment. Forcing the resignation of elected officials on the basis of allegations alone—no matter how certain the charges may appear—would for me set an unwelcome and dangerous precedent. Anything less than following the letter of the law runs the risk of introducing subjectivity, political motives, and personal whims in to our justice system. We must avoid that. Therefore, barring a confession of guilt by Smith—which seems unlikely given his recent public statement that the “allegation that charitable funds were abused is simply not true…”—I believe the established legal process should run its course until final resolution, and until it does I will not join those prematurely calling for Smith’s resignation.
- Further, your attempt to use the public letter I wrote last year (regarding money in our local politics) as somehow supportive of your position that allegations require resignations, indicates a basic misapplication and misunderstanding as to what my letter was about, and in what ways the issues I raised had an ethical component. My letter (copy is enclosed) was directed to the general public as an attempt to inform them about an unprecedented influx of money in to our local campaigns, from persons and organizations both within and, surprisingly, beyond our city. The purpose was to inform the public, motivated by my belief that an informed electorate is the foundation of a healthy democratic process. I did not, and do not, think that the candidates were not legally allowed to receive those contributions. They were. But the size and sources of campaign funding are, I believe, very relevant to the voters—hence my letter. Where an ethical issue does arise in this context is when Council members accept contributions from persons and entities that subsequently bring business before City Council. When that happens, I do believe that an actual or perceived conflict of interest arises that warrants recusal by the related Council member(s). That’s standard practice. Which is why, for instance, I called for President Bonnie Michael to recuse herself from the NCR/Stafford discussion and vote (which she did not).
- In closing, I truly appreciate your concerns about public ethics. I fully share this concern. But it appears to me that you are conflating two very different scenarios, and thus mistaking what is the appropriate course of action at this moment. In the case of Smith, I believe a commitment to the primacy of the legal process requires suspension, or at least relativization, of personal judgment. In the case of campaign finance, a commitment to serving the public alone requires that one avoids conflicts of interest, in fact and perception, and recusing oneself if they nonetheless arise. The common thread here is that the public, who we serve, is assured that their interests, and their interests alone, are being served in all capacities by their governmental system, including its dispensing of justice and the nature of representation.