Mayor Jim West has insisted that his offers of an internship to someone he met in an Internet chat room did not amount to an abuse of office.
But several political scientists said Thursday that such uses of an elected office and public resources represent an ethical transgression, if not a legal one.
“I think it’s a pretty bright line that you don’t use your command over public resources to earn personal favors,” said Blaine Garvin, a professor of political science at Gonzaga University. “That’s not what those resources are for.”
Garvin and a handful of other political observers agreed to discuss the ethical ramifications of a Spokesman-Review report Thursday that West offered an internship and other favors to someone he met in an online chat room. West believed he was chatting with an 18-year-old man; in fact, it was a forensic computer expert hired by the newspaper to create a profile of a young man and communicate with West in an effort to confirm stories that West has used positions of power in part to build sexual relationships with young men.
The stories also include allegations from two men who say West sexually abused them as children. West denied those allegations but acknowledged making the offer of an internship online, as well as offers of sports memorabilia, assistance with college admissions and trips to sporting events and Washington, D.C. He said he didn’t think that was improper.
City Attorney Mike Connelly would not answer questions Thursday about the city of Spokane’s official policies regarding hiring interns.
But several political scientists – who agreed to talk generally about such ethical issues, not specifically about West – said that the offer of an internship to build a personal relationship was improper, whether it violated any laws or rules.
“I don’t see it as a gray area,” said Lance LeLoup, a political science professor at Washington State University. “Anytime you offer to use your power and position to offer a position or some kind of tangible benefit (for personal gain) … it’s unethical. It’s a misuse of power.”
Christopher Arterton, dean of the graduate school of political management at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., said personal relationships have been a perennial part of politics. Politicians often work with longtime friends and appoint people they know to important positions.
But if, in providing such an offer, the politician is offering something to an unknown person as an “inducement … in order to cement or create a personal relationship, then that strikes me as over the line,” Arterton said.
Such situations are unfailingly complex, he said. He cited, for example, the sex scandal of President Clinton. While he was a supporter of Clinton’s, and there may have been no law broken in his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, Arterton said that other factors helped drive Clinton’s behavior into a realm that’s unacceptable for public officials. He lied in a court proceeding and urged friends and colleagues to put their reputations on the line to defend him, for instance.
And any relationship between an 18- or 19-year-old and an adult – especially an adult in a prominent position – involves huge gulfs in experience, power, knowledge and understanding, he said.
Conducting that kind of a relationship crosses ethical boundaries, if not legal ones, he said.
West has insisted that he violated no laws and that his private life ought to remain private.
Nicholas Lovrich, director of the Division of Governmental Studies and Services at WSU and a longtime observer of Eastern Washington politics, said that the line between what’s public and private for elected officials has been disappearing. While he sees legitimate reasons for some of the interest in private lives, he said he’s also concerned about the cumulative effect on the public’s faith in government.
“I think these events are more and more common,” Lovrich said. “Someone is doing a remarkable job in public office, and they have an Achilles’ heel, and someone finds it. People get ever more disaffected with public life, and it’s always sort of sad to me.”
Garvin, the GU professor, said politicians cross an ethical barrier when their private actions don’t square with their public pronouncements. West’s critics say that’s what he has done as a high-profile Republican who opposes gay rights.
“When you act one way in private and then another way in public, I think that’s problematic,” he said.
LeLoup echoed that sentiment.
“I think a lot of people in the state are going to be asking about hypocrisy,” he said.
The newspaper’s role in the investigation of West’s background also presents ethical issues, Garvin said. The Spokesman-Review, after learning of allegations that West was meeting young men at an online chat room, hired a computer consultant with experience conducting Internet stings to set up a profile on Gay.com and communicate with West. It was in subsequent online conversations that West offered the consultant – who he believed was an 18-year-old man – the internship.
“There’s moral ambiguity involved in that behavior, too, because the process is, in a way, not honest,” Garvin said.
In an editor’s note Thursday, Spokesman-Review Editor Steven A. Smith addressed that issue.
“Under ordinary circumstances, the newspaper would not use a fictional scenario in pursuit of a news story,” he wrote. “But the seriousness of the allegations and the need for specific computer forensic skills overrode our general reluctance.”
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