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For the consumer if a deal is too good to be true, it probably is. For the public official if a deal is too good to be true, it’s probably illegal.
Kickbacks, bribery, extortion, graft – as a former elected leader and now as one who writes about public sector leadership and teaches it, it saddens me to see the increasing number of public officials across the country and here at home being stung by stings; duped then dumped, while naively being swept away by the fleeting pleasure of temporary power. Self-absorbed in a system they know well but not nearly well enough to absolutely beat.
One of the first lessons we learn in driver education is never try to outrun the train because the train will likely win. One of the first lessons public servant leaders should learn is never try to outsmart the system because the odds of beating it are not in your favor
People campaign to serve people, not serve time. Moreover, none of them run for office with the goal of being run out of office, do they? What happens? Three words; greed, influence and money.
For many getting elected to public office is the biggest thing ever to happen to them, no matter how small the city. They get invited as special guests to special events where they sit in special seats reserved for special people.
They get to rub shoulders with dignitaries and VIPs whom otherwise would not give them the time of day.
For the economically challenged that translates into having nice suits, cars or jewelry, things long desired but for the bribe would never have been able to afford.
The icing on the cake is making the A-list of the big ballers and shot callers. Sweet.
As sweet as all of this can be, what makes it still sweeter for some is the influence – the power to hold sway over people, projects and programs. And like bees to honey, influence always attracts money.
But as we say in my neck of the woods, all money ain’t good money – especially for those who oversee the public’s money.
Admittedly, it can all be pretty heady. People recognize elected leaders from social media, news media and from community events. They want to stop and chat when they see them out in public and can get one-on-one face time. Some politicians and public servants have become virtual celebrities - especially in minority communities where this has been a long tradition.
They may not have money but they sure dress nice and drive nice cars. Politicians and preachers particularly in black communities are put on pedestals. And recent events, particularly in Dallas, have shown that it only takes a few dollars to knock some off their vaulted position of importance.
When Dallas City Councilman and longtime African American leader, Dwaine Caraway abruptly resigned his council seat earlier this month after pleading guilty to public corruption charges, many were saddened but not surprised.
There have been a number of Dallas officials busted for corruption with only one beating the system. This is in no way an indictment of Mr. Caraway, that is the job of the feds.
It nonetheless angered some and disappointed others when Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, only a day following Mr. Caraway's resignation, had this to say to a group of business leaders at an event for the Dallas Regional Chamber of Commerce.
“Too often public servants that come from poor parts of our city are caught in and let themselves be caught in a trap around money, around economic inclusion, because they don’t have any money,” Rawlings said.
He went on to say that financial upbringing isn't an excuse for corruption, but still the damaging and to some the devastating statement relating poverty (and veiled being black and poor) to corruption had already caused for some, hurt feelings and for others disgust and anger.
But observation will tell us the Mayor was somewhat right. Of the elected leaders in Dallas and Dallas County accused and convicted of corruption all but one has been white. The others, black from and representing economically depressed areas of the city.
Are poorer representatives more likely to be corrupted? In Dallas that has been the case but certainly not around the country. What those in Dallas have been found guilty of, many non-minority officials have been accused and convicted of taking much more.
“Too often public servants that come from poor parts of our city are caught in and let themselves be caught in a trap around money, around economic inclusion, because they don’t have any money.” - Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings
Corruption has less to do with economic poverty than it does moral conviction. At the core of corruption is greed. The desire for the material to compensate for what is lacking in other areas of life.
Even still, as a keeper of the public's trust I teach those looking to run for leadership positions to make up in their mind and decide in the core of their being what lines they will not cross - and stick to it!
Texas Congresswoman Barbara Jordan once stated, " You need a core inside you. A core that directs everything you do. You confer with it for guidance. It is not negotiable. No amount of money will make you violate the core. If you don't have that, then forget about elective politics. If you do, then it will guide you well."
Some would argue that money is neither good nor bad – depending upon how it is used. Not so with public officials – it doesn’t depend so much on how they use it, but how they obtain it.
And if they use the particularities of their public positions (i.e., influence, access, clout, connections, etc.) to surreptitiously obtain it for personal benefit rather than for the public’s benefit, then that money becomes bad money the moment they get it in their greedy hands.
Bad money is always bad news for any public official, no matter how “bad” they think they've become.
So, where do you draw the line? How do you know when you’re headed for a train wreck, about to take a kamikaze hit to your career or are being set up in a sting?
" You need a core inside you. A core that directs everything you do. You confer with it for guidance. It is not negotiable. No amount of money will make you violate the core. If you don't have that, then forget about elective politics. If you do, then it will guide you well." - Barbara Jordan
Look below. Though presented lightheartedly, don’t take them lightly because they have been the death of many careers.
Know that if you are taking any of these, you had better look over your shoulder because someone is gaining on you. It will only be a matter of time before you are caught red-handed.
Three things I have learned about the FBI and federal government; 1) they have a lot of time 2) they have a lot of patience; and, 3) they will provide a lot of rope for officials to hang themselves. Take a look then examine yourself:
- Play Money – The private sector is growing increasingly resentful of having to “pay to play” in the government game. If you are charging a price for admission, be careful. The count is 3-2 and it’s the bottom of the ninth. The next pitch could be a strike from a pitcher who is a sub for the men in black.
- Lunch Money – there is no free lunch. In public office, “free” is rarely free. Wine and dine at your own expense and regardless of what your mother taught you while in office, always look a gift horse in the mouth.
- Blood Money – using the power of your office to profit off the backs of the most vulnerable and least suspecting. Don’t keep what you are supposed to allocate.
- Milk Money – you can only milk a cow for so long. Pigs are not the only ones that squeal.
- Hush Money – if you must hide it to keep it quiet, you shouldn’t take it. Hush money will eventually speak volumes.
- Funny Money – if it makes you feel “funny” when you take it, give it back. That’s your conscience talking to you. Listen to it – otherwise, the last laugh will be on you.
- Bonus Money – reporting it is a lot smarter than hoarding it. List it or leave it.
- Easy Money – getting paid to look the other way while others do their dirty work; or worse, having others do your dirty work while you rake in the cash.
- Mad Money – skimming money off the top because you’ve come to resent a system that doesn’t pay you what you think you deserve or appreciates your perceived value. You deserve it, right? Wrong. Get a second job.
This list is not intended to be exhaustive, just elemental. These have been the downfall of many and if you have skated by, be thankful.
But if you depend on either of these to fund your lifestyle and feed your ego, be careful.
There will be the eventual knock at your door and it will not be girl scouts selling cookies, but officers serving a warrant.
One of the simple lessons I learned during my many years in public service is that it is never too late to get right, but you have to get right before it is too late.
Don’t exchange for chump change that which you have worked so hard to accomplish because in the end, that is all to which it will amount. Your integrity is priceless, so is your name.
Once you sell them you can never buy them back. Redeemable yes, restored, not hardly.
No matter if you represent a hundred people or hundreds of thousands of people as a public official, in the public eye, be assured of two things – someone is always watching and someone will always tell – always.
Take these to the bank. Just don't take those Benjamins with you.
"Nothing is hidden except to be revealed; nor has anything been secret, but that it would come to light. If anyone hears let him hear." - Jesus
Dorothy Burton is an author, conference and keynote speaker for various organizations and governments across the country. She is the author of the new book, Why We Fall: The Power of Self-Awareness.
Interested in having Dorothy speak at your event? Please complete the SPEAKING REQUEST below.
Published on Monday, August 20, 2018 @ 4:55 PM CDT