The famous Talmudic dictum states: “The mouse is not the thief, the mousehole is the thief.” When opportunity beckons too enthusiastically, there are few who are strong enough to look away.
We have grown accustomed to people in positions of power availing themselves of such perquisites as corporate jets and fact-finding tours in island paradises on the government tab. This brand of Corruption Lite no longer waves too red a flag in our eyes; we know we can’t fight all the bull. But there is reason to believe it has a tendency to spread and to grow. Most pernicious of all is when it takes hold in the law enforcement community.
Here in South Florida we are experiencing an epidemic of high-ranking police figures being caught with their hands in various public and private tills. Sheriff Ken Jenne of Broward County, despite winning reelection last year, has been forced to resign his position this week in a letter to Governor Charlie Crist. This was because a Federal prosecutor is in the process of indicting him for income tax evasion and mail fraud; he has apparently opted to admit guilt in some kind of plea deal.
A tad farther south, Miami police chief John Timony is under fire for having accepted a free lease on a Lexus. He has since apologized and refunded the value of the gift but the local police union held a special vote to pass a motion of no-confidence, trying to pressure him to step down. So far he is managing to cling to his position, but his hold is looking more tenuous each day.
How does this happen? Jenne, for one, was making very nice money between his public position and his two private security companies. He did not need to pad his income with money that local developers gave as gifts, ostensibly to his secretary, bringing new meaning to the term “bag lady”. Nor did he need his old law firm to slip him forty thousand unreported dollars by the ruse of paying for his Mercedes-Benz and its upkeep. Why did he do it? Perhaps because, as Bill Clinton once said, he could. Or thought he could.
The real, more subtle, cause of this sort of misbehavior is as we outlined earlier. The problem lies in all the smarmy tricks that are still legal. Indulging in those gives a false sense of invincibility, of being above the law, of being entitled to a million little tributes in return for public service. In fact, the whole idea of a sitting sheriff being allowed to run a private security company and hire his own off-duty deputies as guards is a horrible abuse. It in essence allows him to subcontract part of his public duties out to himself as a private entrepreneur.
Now, it is true that Jenne was only making about 200K per annum by legal means, while as a lawyer before his election he made more like 800 a year for his legal work. The public trough can never quite offer as much hay as the private mill. People make sacrifices in lifestyle to accept public positions, and that is as it should be; the nation is entitled to a high quality of public servant but the nation cannot ask its workaday citizens to underwrite true executive salaries for an elected official, however capable. The difference between his intrinsic value and our salary cap is the one we ask him to forfeit on our behalf.
We rely very heavily on such officials, especially in a post such as the sheriffalty. When they get lazy about crossing the t’s and dotting the I’s, their vision of policing takes a nosedive as well. Loss of reverence for the law as an inviolate instrument will show itself in many arenas.
For example, before the last election, Jenne’s office arrested a man and announced he had confessed to over a hundred unsolved crimes. Later it was proven that the fellow had actually been in jail at the time most of those incidents were committed. It was obvious that Jenne and his boys were padding the stats for solved crimes. Here the corruption is no longer about money, but about sloughing off the most important duties of the office.
We need integrity behind the wheel of the police car, at the hip alongside the holster, in handling the chain of evidence, in testifying before the judge exactly what happened. The police must remember their purpose: it is to uphold the pillar of law in our society. We pray they never again lose their way.