Opinion and Forefront

BOEHM: Nipping entry-level corruption in the bud

January 7, 2012

Ted BoehmWe’ve been battered by the conviction of a former member of the Indianapolis City-County Council and an indictment of a second. These charges of criminal breaches of the public’s trust have been garnished with repeated calls for the resignation of the secretary of state.

Even if all of these charges are fully justified, it’s a mistake to think we have entered a new era of widespread corruption in government. Indiana state government and Indianapolis city government have enjoyed decades of governors and mayors of unquestioned integrity. And we have been well served by dedicated and talented people in senior executive positions of both city and state government.

The charged misbehavior in each of these recent and apparently unrelated events arose in a different context. There are, however, dots to be connected.

The questioned conduct was that of a person who was elected to fill an office that is neither well understood nor generally known by the general public. If the voters do not have much understanding of what the office really requires, they can’t be expected to exercise much judgment in choosing candidates. And if the race is below the radar screen of most voters, there will be little serious review of the candidates’ experience or personal or financial history.

The result is there is no serious vetting of candidates for lower office. Anyone can run for public office, and unless the race is visible enough to get the attention of the public, the winner can be selected based on factors that have nothing to do with the candidate’s ability, experience or integrity. So we can end up with some seriously bad apples.

To some extent, this is simply the price of democracy, and well worth it. Of course we should be electing members of the General Assembly and municipal council members. These are legislative positions and should reflect the views of the electorate. If we get someone who is willing to sell a vote or extract a bribe, that’s the cost we pay for a government of checks and balances.

Elections are equally necessary to fill the visible top spots in the executive branch. We do not want an executive beholden to the legislative or judicial branches, so there is no realistic alternative to electing the governor and the mayor. Moreover, these top executive positions do indeed exercise substantial policy choices, and the races get enough attention that the voters are able to form a judgment as to which candidate fits their preferences.

But when it comes to lower-level executive offices or judges, elections serve us poorly. These are positions that require professional and administrative skills. The voters do not know who the candidates are or what experience or talents the office requires.

As a result, the voters have little to go on beyond party preference, or a hope that a candidate’s position on a subject remote from the office sought evidences a kindred spirit.

Reliance on these judgments can get us in trouble. A good example is the case of two elected Pennsylvania judges convicted of accepting bribes to place children in foster care who either did not require placement at all, or were placed in an unsuitable arrangement. It’s hard to imagine a more serious abuse of public office.

In my experience, anyone capable of that is likely to have some history that a serious vetting would have screened out of the candidate pool.

The appointing governor or mayor is accountable for the performance of the people selected. Electing top executive officers and relying on them to select the people who will administer the various functions of government therefore gives us some reasonable basis to hope that talent will be recruited and that there will be a careful review of candidates.

The indictment of the merit-selected former chair of the Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission demonstrates that no system of selection is guaranteed to produce officials whose conduct cannot be challenged. But we should place our bets on the process that gives us the best chance of a good result.•

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Boehm is a retired Indiana Supreme Court justice who previously held senior corporate legal positions and helped launch amateur sports initiatives in Indianapolis. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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