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September 4th, 2010
03:35 PM ET

Letters to the President: #593 'Ethics? Uh…no thanks…'

Tom Foreman | BIO
AC360° Correspondent

Reporter's Note: President Barack Obama spoke of restoring integrity to government when he campaigned. But apparently, he didn’t speak loudly enough for everyone in Congress to hear.

Dear Mr. President,

I listened to an interview that we had on AC360 this week with Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson from Texas, and I thought my head might actually explode. In case you missed it, she admits she gave charitable scholarships to family members instead of to other folks in her district, and she says she’s sorry about it. Says she made a mistake.

Related: Reporter weighs in on lawmaker's claims

But the part that drives me up a pole is that she suggested the reason this happened was that she just didn’t understand the rules connected to the program. What? How is it possible that anyone, including a member of Congress, would not realize that this could be wrong? Does anyone actually need a rule book to know that tossing money from a charity to family and friends is wrong? “I’m sorry Annie, you’ll have to go back to the orphanage; turns out I have a niece…”

But here is the thing: I don’t think this congresswoman would have even tried to fly that kite, if she weren’t in an environment that remains far too willing to turn a blind eye to questionable behavior, and equally willing to accept spurious explanations. Over my three decades of reporting the news, this has been a constant. In seats of power, from City Hall to the top levels of federal government, far too often I’ve found people who clearly feel it is a reasonable perk of the office to give themselves and their pals little rewards from time to time. And usually, the justification is something like what we’ve heard in this matter: “Well, it’s not illegal” or “the rules don’t actually forbid it,” or “I’m doing so much good for the public, I certainly deserve a little slice of the pie.”

The simple truth is you and I both know that elected leaders should hold themselves to the highest standards of conduct, not the lowest. They should be asking themselves everyday, “Am I doing what is right, or just what I can get away with? Am I putting the good of the people first, and my own desires last?”

I’m not holding my breath for that to happen of course. And I have joked before that the ethics committee in Congress is about as useful as a fork in a soup eating contest. But this is the kind of thing, in all fairness, that comes along on an all too regular basis to make voters think that no matter how low their opinion of Congress already is, it’s just not low enough.

Anyway, sorry to get onto such a downer on a weekend, but it just wouldn’t wait. I’m heading to Atlanta for a couple of days of anchoring. Hey, if you want to call me during my show, I’ll put you on the air. That would be fun. You know, “Oh Brook, hold on a minute…my phone is ringing. I wonder who it could be…” Ha!

Regards,
Tom

Follow Tom on Twitter @tomforemancnn.

Find more of the Foreman Letters here.

soundoff (9 Responses)
  1. David, Indiana

    A member of congress should be in compliance with the rules of eligibility for this scholarship esp the ineligibility of family members.

    I wonder if some of the students out of her district are out of her district because they are going to college. That is maybe they were in high school and living at home and in her district before they were awarded the scholarship but then went to college and so were not in her district. after receiving the scholarship. If such were the case, then what Rep Johnson says about there being some ambiguity in that rule would be a completely reasonable argument for awarding the scholarship to someone not in her district. That is, a renewable scholarship for someone going to college should be renewable as the person is pursuing a degree at the college they're attending. As it is probably most students who go to college in their home state go to school in one congressional district but come from a different congressional district.

    September 6, 2010 at 2:51 am |
  2. Michele Gomis

    And we wonder why voter turnout is so low....either we are ALL morally bankrupt or those who truly are self select to go into politics.

    Greed and selfishness seem to have unlimited ways of being expressed. And the defense is usually an insult to the intelligence reference to a (probably fictional) "rule book." How stupid are we supposed to be? Why does it all have to turn so ugly.....?

    When in doubt..."follow the money."

    What remains is a continuing struggle (in my mind anyway) to balance skepticism without it turning into cynicism, and optimism without it turning into foolish credibility. (sigh...)

    September 5, 2010 at 11:58 am |
  3. J.V.Hodgson

    Share the views of this article completely.
    Problem is voters re-elect these people on many many occasions.
    So who is the real problem?
    If so many get away with rule ignoring and simple ethics breaches no
    wonder they keep doing it.
    Bottom line she repays the $31,000 and she gets re-elected " having paid for her errors!!
    Second bottom line is have you noticed these rules ( governing politicians behaviour and politically backed activities in particular) never have stated penalties for breaches!?
    Regards,
    Hodgson.

    September 5, 2010 at 12:51 am |
  4. Nativegrl77

    If she is guilty then she will have to face the consequences... I would like to know how you feel about the many Republicans and their ethics violations that seemed to have remained under the dirty carpet of Republicans eh Tom? wonder if you are one of many focused on those in Congress that are African American ... oh i mean since we have a Black president and all..what you trying to say Tom ...oh maybe hey why don't you keep your own in control? like Maxine Waters, Charles Rangel and now Bernice ... I understand that ethics violations are a very serious issue but they happen on both sides of the aisle Tom

    September 4, 2010 at 7:34 pm |
  5. dee

    Actually, all moral people are those who call and/or consider themselves moral should hold to the highest standards. However, few do and many regardless of their position squat to the lowest standards. Position does not make character. Character is determined by what's done in the dark!

    September 4, 2010 at 7:25 pm |
  6. diane outlaw

    I agree that some of our politicians are quite shady. There are favors bartered all hours of the day....unchecked. Most Americans dont have high esteem for our leaders. Some of the problems can be solved if political activities were more transparent. If. If. Taxpayers are struggling daily while some politicians are enjoying elitist status. Politicians probably start off wanting to make a difference. Then greed kicks in, and you know the rest of the scenario. So sad, because our country truly has endless possibilities.

    September 4, 2010 at 4:37 pm |
  7. Robert Stroney

    Keep Them Honest!

    September 4, 2010 at 3:56 pm |
  8. Robert Stroney

    I think it's time for this Representative Johnson, to step down!

    September 4, 2010 at 3:53 pm |
  9. Robert Stroney

    If Representative doesn't know it's Common Standards, then I would be concerned about her common sense. Everybody knows right from wrong; almost everybody.

    September 4, 2010 at 3:52 pm |