Covering politics in North Carolina and beyond, VoterRadio.com is streaming 24 hours a day. Listen live or on-demand.
Keeping Government Honest
By Damon Circosta
Published: Dec. 14, 2009
RALEIGH - Last week the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments in several cases concerning honest-services fraud. The honest-services law makes it illegal for public officials to act in a way that is not in the best interests of the people they serve.
The law is relatively new, but federal prosecutors have used the honest-services law in several high-profile political scandals. They rely on it in cases where sophisticated fraudulent schemes exist and conviction under other statutes seems unlikely. Here in North Carolina, the honest-services statute was used in the investigations of Kevin Geddings, the state’s former lottery commissioner, and Michael Decker, a one-time state representative convicted in the Jim Black scandal.
Detractors argue that the law is vague and gives overzealous prosecutors free rein to indict public officials engaged in all sorts of activity, some of which has no business being a crime. After all, other criminal statutes apply to public officials. We shouldn’t need the additional charge of honest-services fraud.
While the honest-services statute might need some fine-tuning, it has proven invaluable as a means to root out corruption. It has been instrumental in putting away some bad apples that are spoiling the reputation of the rest of our public servants.
There exists a sacred trust between members of the public and the people we select to do our public business. This bond between the people and public officials gets at the very heart of what it means to live in a free society. You and I have given our public servants the latitude to carry on public business in our name. Most of the time the good and honorable people who choose to serve use that latitude in an effort to improve things for all of us. Whether it’s public education, better transportation or access to clean drinking water, most public projects offer a great benefit to us all.
Occasionally, a politician comes along who has no interest in working for the public. He gets into public service for all of the wrong reasons: greed, adulation, self-dealing. If we are doing our job as informed citizens he won’t last long in public office. We can turn him out in the next election. But sometimes, that is not enough.
If an employee has stolen thousands of dollars from a business, he will be fired. Additionally, he could face punishment besides termination, including criminal prosecution. This is what the honest-services statue is about. We, as employers of our public servants, are wronged when someone uses their office for personal benefit.
When a public servant steals, he takes more than just tangible goods. He also takes away trust in the institution. As Americans we have a healthy skepticism of government. It’s good to be mindful and wary of those who pull the levers of power. But such skepticism turns into downright distrust when there is even a whiff of corruption. As citizens, we might disagree about the appropriate role government should play in society, but we all want that role to be carried out for public benefit -- not private gain.
As the U.S. Supreme Court weighs in on the honest-services statute, hopefully they do so mindful of the extremely fragile bond between the government and the governed. It might not be pleasant when we have to use honest-services fraud as a tool to root out corruption, but when it comes to building trust in our government, we need all the tools we can get.