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Honor Among Politicians

Jun. 22, 2010
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Honor among politicians, like honor among thieves, is relative.

Early in his professional life, the great investigative reporter Seymour Hersh served as a campaign aide to the late Sen. Eugene McCarthy, the anti-war presidential candidate who forced Democratic President Lyndon Johnson to abandon a bid for a second term.

McCarthy was a bemused, intellectual, Minnesota politician who wrote poetry. McCarthy was so unlike the larger-than-life political villains he battled back then—not only Johnson, but also the shifty-eyed Richard Nixon—he was called “Clean Gene.”

If ever there were a time when working for a politician could be considered a positive experience in pursuit of a righteous cause, working for McCarthy in 1968 would seem to be it.

Hersh says he had to quit because he couldn’t stand lying every day. And that was for one of the good guys.

Politics as usual is often an exercise in dishonesty. Politicians pretend to be outraged over issues they really couldn’t care less about and have no intention of doing anything about.

With such rampant dishonesty and in far too many cases outright criminality, whenever a political body considers censuring one of its own, it must be for some truly egregious violation of all that is holy and decent, right?

Wrong. The Milwaukee County Board this week will consider a resolution to censure Supervisor Lynne De Bruin for publicly revealing details about the county’s failure to protect patients from sexual assault at its mental health complex.

What could possibly be wrong with alerting the public about seemingly callous indifference at the top toward protecting extremely vulnerable women housed in mixed-sex dorms with sexually violent male patients?

According to County Board Chairman Lee Holloway, De Bruin’s horrendous ethical violation was that the discussion took place behind closed doors in a private session called under state law to discuss possible legal issues.

Holloway is grieved by the public airing of what was said in a supposedly private meeting. It violates some kind of honor code among politicians when people find out what county officials say when the public isn’t around.

It is the same rationale corrupt presidents use to try to prevent public disclosure of what they’re up to. Vice President Dick Cheney went to court to try to prevent disclosure of which oil company executives he allowed to write the nation’s energy regulations.

Serving the Public Interest

Even if state law allows public officials to meet in secret to discuss certain subjects, that doesn’t mean the public doesn’t have an interest in what their elected officials are doing behind closed doors.

They aren’t talking about Justin Bieber in there or anything else that doesn’t matter. They are talking about the public’s business.

In the case of the county’s mental health complex, the issue of patient sexual assaults was first raised in January after an investigation by the federal and state governments placed Milwaukee County in “immediate jeopardy” of losing millions of dollars in Medicare funding for the facility.

It was the second major embarrassment calling into question the competence of County Executive Scott Walker’s government, coming at the particularly awkward time when Walker is campaigning for governor.

A year earlier, the state took over management of Milwaukee County’s public assistance programs because of the county’s “sustained inability to successfully provide services” to poor and working families.

Failure to protect mentally ill patients from sexual assault and failure to deliver government services to people who need them both can be tied to Walker’s tax-cutting political promises. Understaffing county departments to hold down taxes can make it impossible for even competent professionals to do their jobs adequately.

When that was just forcing poor people to wait in line all day at 12th and Vliet streets and run a gauntlet of humiliation, it didn’t bother the majority of middle-class voters.

But the reality of mental illness is that it cuts across all classes. Wealthy families experience the heartache just like poor ones.

Although steps were taken to remove the county’s “immediate jeopardy” status, Disability Rights Wisconsin, the independent designated protection agency for the mentally ill at the facility, is completing an investigation to address “much broader and deeper problems” at the facility.

A defensive response by county behavioral health officials is correct when it says the majority of mental health facilities around the country include mixed-sex dorms. That does not excuse failure to provide adequate security to keep all patients safe.

County officials also claim sexual assaults at the facility are infinitesimal compared to the national average. The actual numbers need to be closely examined by Disability Rights Wisconsin before they can be accepted as credible.

Protecting vulnerable individuals in need of treatment is an important public issue. We shouldn’t be censuring a politician for putting it before the public.

We should be censuring any politician who doesn’t want to get government’s shortcomings out in the open.


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