Public Corruption and Environmental Stewardship—No Sympathy for the Governor

 A green lament for the fall of Eliot Spitzer: “Whether it was toxic mercury, smog and acid rain or global warming, Spitzer would reliably fight on behalf of environmentalists and scientists who sought to strengthen weak standards to protect human health and the environment.” [thedailygreen.com]

True enough, we all had high hopes for Governor Spitzer. He understood the importance of protecting the environment and was a savvy and effective prosecutor. But while my heart goes out to Spitzer’s wife and kids, I hope there is a special place down under (and I don’t mean Australia) for public servants who betray the public trust. We are all flawed human beings and no one is perfect, but elected officials must be held to higher standards of behavior.

The fundamental and irreducible role of government is to protect the lives and well being of those living within its jurisdiction. We give up freedoms in exchange for that security. The Governor of New York (as Senator Bruno learned) controls the State Police and also the National Guard. These guys have guns and have the legal right, under certain conditions, to come to our houses in the middle of the night and carry us off to prison. The people we entrust with that authority, and the other authorities held by modern governments must live by the highest standards of personal and public ethics.

What does this mean? In the dysfunctional environment of our state government it’s sometimes hard to tell. Our “part time” legislators are allowed to hold outside employment, and many like Assembly Speaker Silver and Senate Leader Bruno make quite a bit of money from their private sector careers. Governor Spitzer was born to wealth and didn’t need to hustle outside income, so I guess he found other paths to corruption. We, the public, are, of course, all to blame for the environment in Albany. We insist on underpaying public officials- essentially an open invitation to corruption. We allow lobbyists and special interests to dominate state politics. Money and privilege is so imbedded in New York politics that the line between the public interest and private benefit sometimes is impossible to find.

It’s in that environment that Alan Hevesi assigned a driver to his wife, Rudy Giuliani assigned “security” to his the mistress and now Elliot Spitzer has emerged as the infamous “client number 9” This type of personal corruption cannot be excused and should not be rationalized.

While environmental protection is good for business and the only real economic development is sustainable development, corrupt societies are incapable of acting in their own best interest. Many of the principles of green business require investment where the pay off is not immediate. For people and organizations to invest in the future they need to believe that the future will come in ways that can be reasonably predicted. The rule of law and rules of political and economic competition must be real and must be enforced. Corrupt public officials not only lose the moral authority to enforce the rule of law, they can lose the practical ability to stand up to those who violate the law. They are easily and often blackmailed.

In the case of Governor Spitzer—what price would he have been asked to pay to keep the story of his prostitute procuring ways out of the press? Corrupt private behavior by public officials inevitably leads to corrupt public policy. People that want to get rich, live large and party all night should not go into public service. Public servants must be devoted to the public interest. We deserve better than we are getting here and it is time to insist on higher standards of behavior from those who serve us.

This content was provided for use by The New York Observer, specifically on Observer.com by the scientists and researchers at Columbia University. Any other use of this content without prior authorization from Columbia University and The New York Observer is strictly prohibited.

Public Corruption and Environmental Stewardship—No Sympathy for the Governor