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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion

Lack of integrity erodes public trust

The Spokesman-Review

What a story.

A grand jury indicts a major national political figure on accusations that he abused his office in cahoots with a cluster of high-rollers from the president’s home state. The indicted official and his allies brand it a partisan witch hunt and boldly predict full vindication. Opponents cluck about uncovering a pattern of rampant corruption. The president, a close political ally of the accused, says the legal process will have to run its course.

Indeed, what a story. In the end, though, Mike Espy, first Agriculture secretary under President Clinton, was acquitted.

Now, nearly seven years later, it’s House Majority Leader Tom DeLay’s turn in the dock. Indicted Wednesday on a charge of criminal conspiracy – essentially a money-laundering scheme to get around Texas campaign finance restrictions – DeLay claimed he’s the target of a “vengeful investigation led by a partisan fanatic.”

Democratic prosecutor Ronnie Earle of Travis County, Texas, DeLay said, is a “rogue district attorney.”

Not to be out-extremed, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi called the indictment “the latest example that Republicans in Congress are plagued by a culture of corruption at the expense of the American people.”

As they assemble along partisan lines to read their respective lines, the political players in Washington, D.C., Texas and elsewhere are missing something important. Something that citizens are all too aware of. Something on which public cynicism is growing fat.

Whether it’s a Democratic administration (whole Web sites are dedicated to the indictment tally in the Clinton reign) or a Republican administration (Rove, Frist, Abramoff, DeLay), the predictability of wrongdoing and scandal is an unforgivable violation of public trust. Americans have a right to expect that the people they choose to run a representative government will honor the law. Increasingly, though, government officials are caught exploiting their power and influence – often unethically, sometimes illegally.

Rather than focus on the collapse of integrity in government, however, the political players respond by dwelling on partisanship. Democrats point out that in his career as a district attorney, Earle has prosecuted more Democrats than Republicans. Republicans emphasize Earle’s conspicuously unsuccessful prosecution of Republican Texas Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison as evidence of partisan motivation.

As the past two presidents have said about criminal accusations against their allies, the justice system needs to run its course. While that is happening, however, Congress and other political bodies need to show more respect for the offices they hold on the public’s behalf. Last January, with DeLay in hot water over questionable travel gratuities, the House Ethics Committee amended its rules to make it even harder to handle ethics charges on a bipartisan basis. Reversing that change might help restore some public confidence.

What a story that would be.

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