Saturday, June 04, 2016

Appearances of Impropriety

A couple of years ago I attended a graduation for one of my students at the UCF [Your Corporate Logo Here] Arena. The commencement speaker that morning was the Attorney General of the State of Florida, Pam Bondi. Though I did not vote for Ms. Bondi either time she has run, I had hoped for at least a modicum of thoughtfulness from a high profile, highly paid state official that morning.

Alas, my hopes were soon dashed.

Bondi rambled through what quickly revealed itself as a contender for Worst Commencement Speech Ever. It had little recognizable organization and even less original thought, the speaker having opted to string together one quote after another, many without attribution, none with any context or development of the theme of the speech, whatever that might have been.

In religious circles, this would have taken the form of the proof-texting fundamentalist preacher, stringing together one snippet of scripture after another without any sense of context or critical assessment. In the classes I once taught at this very university, an assignment submitted with this kind of string-citations would have at least been returned for a rewrite and the use of unattributed sources might well have earned the student a ticket to a compulsory academic honesty course. 

I came away from that speech with the impression that our Attorney General must have been having a particularly rough morning. The alternative was to assume she was either a bit stupid or incredibly lazy. Indeed, after that performance, I wondered how in the hell she’d gotten through law school in the first place.

Those fears have not been alleviated by Bondi’s performance as AG. Her office’s inaction in the wake of judicial crisis in the Seminole County case of George Zimmerman exacerbated a crisis of legitimacy in the handling of a racially charged murder case of a 17-year-old African-American kid.

Bondi also spent a half million dollars of tax payer money on pointlessly resisting court decisions which ultimately struck down Florida’s discriminatory anti-gay amendments even when the outcome was clearly inevitable and ongoing litigation little more than political grandstanding. Pandering to one’s political base is hardly anything new in American politics. But when such self-interest compromises the interests of the electorate one has been elected to represent, not the least being the taxpayers who must foot the bill for such grandstanding, that behavior escalates from annoying self-focus to ethically problematic.

Campaign Cash and Consistent Vapidity

This past week, criticism of Bondi’s performance as a public servant shifted from the ineptitude and self-serving behavior that has marked her term as AG to more serious concerns for malfeasance and ethical violations.

In 2010, the details of the closing of Trump University, one of many failed business ventures of the current Republican nominee for the presidency, began to be revealed in New York. Trump University was accused in three different states of

"promising, but not delivering access to Trump’s real estate techniques taught by 'hand-picked' professors at an elite 'university,' when in fact Trump was not substantively involved in the Live Events curriculum or selecting the instructors and the New York State Education Department had warned Trump it was unlawful to call it a 'university.'”

Students of the “university” paid as much as $35,000 for “what was purported to be private mentoring with supposed real estate experts — some of whom Trump himself later acknowledged were unqualified.” New York’s Attorney General Eric Schneiderman called it “fraud. ... straight-up fraud…” and quickly filed suit against Trump for deceptive business practices asserting that “[Trump] was clearly in charge of pitching this scam university to people."

Attorneys General in both Texas and Florida, states in which a number of the former students now demanding refunds resided, both signaled their intent to join in the action against Trump University. Texas AG Greg Abbot opened a civil investigation of deceptive trade practices which had cost his fellow Texans almost $3 million only to drop his probe when Trump University agreed to end its operations in Texas. Trump subsequently donated $35,000 to Abbott's successful gubernatorial campaign. Abbot’s defrauded fellow Texans got zip.

Contrary to the popular bumper stickers, if you’ve got enough money and connections, you apparently can mess with Texas.

In Florida, when AG Bondi came into office in 2010, 22 complaints already filed against Trump University from Florida claimants awaited her. After a story in the Orlando Sentinel brought to the public eye the Florida complaints cited by New York AG Schneiderman, a spokeswoman for Bondi announced that the AG’s office intended to “review the allegations.”

Three days later Trump made a $25,000 contribution to a political action committee raising funds for Bondi’s reelection.

Nothing more was heard about the investigation thereafter. A month later, when a representative from Bondi’s office was questioned on its failure to act, Jenn Meale, a spokeswoman for the AG’s office, “suggested no action is necessary because the affected Florida consumers would be compensated if New York wins that case.”

A legal review of the complaints, however, indicated that the Florida complaints name a business entity which is not part of the New York action and thus not liable under New York law. Like their Texas counterparts, Florida victims of the Trump swindle are unlikely to be compensated for their damages by the NY action.

Last March, Bondi endorsed Donald Trump for President after having previously endorsed former Florida Governor Jeb Bush. In announcing her change of allegiance, Bondi said, “You are speaking loud and clear, and Americans are speaking loud and clear,” and, “I always listen to my mom, and my mom is with Donald Trump, and so am I.”

Bondi’s name is now being bandied about by Republican strategists as a possible running mate with Trump. One must give the woman credit for consistency in her vapidity if not her unbounded personal ambition.

Public Perception of Integrity 

Of course, unprincipled political ambition is a phenomenon as old as politics itself. While scholars have debated which presidents have been the most narcissistic residents of the American White House (a contest won by LBJ) it’s probably a good bet that a sense of oneself as larger than life is probably necessary just to survive against the challenges of the Oval Office.

But when political ambition gets in the way of fulfilling the responsibilities to the voters the office holder has voluntarily assumed, the politician has moved from expectable egocentrism into constitutionally problematic irresponsibility. The people of Florida are entitled to rely on a chief law enforcement agent who is more concerned about the injuries they could sustain from corporate predators than her own political future.  

Cases of malfeasance by a constitutional officer become particularly problematic when they involve a member of the Bar. While there are numerous provisions in the Florida and American Bar Associations’ Code of Professional Responsibility regarding protection of the interests of one’s clients (and the people of Florida are ultimately the clients of the state attorney general who acts on their behalf), both codes contain provisions prohibiting public behaviors which draw into question the judicial system’s ability to remain impartial and the ability of legal counsel to remain uncompromised.

Florida’s ethics code charges its judges with not engaging in behaviors which create “an appearance of impropriety,” the key concern being the necessity of the tribunal to maintain the public’s confidence in its impartiality. Lawyers practicing before that tribunal are also bound by several chapters of the Florida Rules of Professional Conduct regarding obligations to clients. Florida courts have ruled that “the public's perception of the integrity of the bar” is a critical factor in determining whether the conduct of any attorney practicing before the Bar constitutes an “appearance of impropriety.” 

More specifically, Rule 4:1-7 prohibits lawyers from professional conduct in which “the lawyer's exercise of independent professional judgment in the representation of that client may be materially limited by the lawyer's responsibilities to another client or to a third person or by the lawyer's own interest.” Rule 4:1-11 prohibits public officers from negotiating “for private employment with any person who is involved as a party or as attorney for a party in a matter in which the lawyer is participating personally and substantially.”

When examined together, the clear intention of the Florida ethics codes is to prevent all participants in the legal system from engaging in behaviors which signal to the citizenry any potential betrayal of public trust. With that concern in mind, let’s look again at the sequence of events involving Florida’s Attorney General:

1.The Florida AG’s office announces that 22 cases of corporate fraud already filed with that office will be investigated but only after a report by the NY Attorney General brings them to light
2.    Three days later, a substantial donation to the AG’s reelection campaign is received from the alleged perpetrator of that fraud
3.    The AG’s office thereafter drops the investigation without notice. Only when pressed by reporters does the office reveal it has ended that investigation with the excuse that litigation in another state will address the losses of Floridians
4.    The NY litigation does not cover the claims of the 22 victims of fraud in Florida, each having lost up to $35,000, and now facing the distinct possibility of no compensation for their losses
5.    The AG then endorses the alleged perpetrator of the fraud in his race for the Presidency
6.    The AG is now being discussed as the alleged perpetrator’s running mate.

How should the public see such a sequence of events?

Inability to Escape Self-Interest and the Public Trust

It is bad enough that an intellectually lazy, self-promoting politician holds the highest law enforcement position in the nation’s third largest state. Her performance as commencement speaker was shameful and embarrassing for any member of the Bar she personally and professionally represented that day. And her performance as state attorney general has been an ongoing study of mediocrity on a good day.

But when the chief law enforcement agent in a major state engages in behavior that suggests she is unable to escape her own political self-interests long enough to do her job and that those interests may, indeed, influence her judgment on how her job is performed, a larger concern than mere politics arises. An appearance of impropriety by the top law enforcement agent of a state is not a small concern. Indeed, it ultimately raises a fundamental question regarding the very legitimacy of the legal system that agent ostensibly serves.

That said, I do not expect this woman to come to her senses, recognize the gravity of her behavior and either rectify this questionable behavior or resign. I also do not anticipate any kind of legal or constitutional action to remove her from office in an age where corporate cronyism has become an expectable part of governance in a state whose public officials earned a D- on accountability and transparency last year by the Center for Public Integrity. But, even if their own judgment in returning this woman to office two years ago in a tidal wave of Teapot voters may in retrospect appear to be highly questionable, the people of Florida deserve better.

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it.  Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Ages, Commentary on Micah 6:8


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It is amazing how the dark side of the parabula is dominant right now ...