Alden Graves: The frontal assault on ethics backfires

I'm sure an awful lot of people understood why the Republicans in Congress put such a high priority on neutering the power of the Office of Congressional Ethics. The checkered moral and business track records of our incoming president would indicate that ethics will hardy figure as a key component in his promise to make America great again.

Set up in the wake of a number of major public scandals in 2008, the independent committee of eight people is assigned the responsibility of keeping a close eye on the various wheelings and dealings of members of Congress. Given the legislative body's less than stellar history, an independent ethics committee makes a great deal of sense. For ambitious congressmen, however, it is a little like having eight perennial wallflowers at the Big Dance.

The Republicans, whose notion of transparency is meeting secretly in the dead of night, would rather turn the responsibility of monitoring ethics over to themselves. Not surprisingly, the maneuver struck many others as a classic fox and henhouse situation. I'm sure the possibility of a massive backfire occurred to many of the legislators who attended the meeting. Engorged with their newfound power the way Popeye bulks up after downing a can of spinach, they decided to brazen out the negative implications with the silly excuse that a lot of lawyers don't think that poor congressmen always get a fair shake with the ethics committee.

What a lot of lawyers are paid to think didn't hold much weight with the rest of the country and the Republicans were finally forced into a spectacularly ignoble retreat.

Of course, the utter contempt of commonly accepted ethical behavior is another gift from our soon-to-be president. From his adamant refusal to release his tax records (I'll wager that Mr. Trump has the longest audit in the history of the country) to the hundreds of lawsuits filed against him by stiffed contractors, the founder of the so-called Trump Empire has amply demonstrated that, to paraphrase the estimable Mae West, ethics had nothing to do with it.

Last week, three more contractors filed lawsuits against Trump claiming that he owed a total of $5 million in labor costs on his cushy Washington, D.C. hotel. The Trump Organization has yet to respond to the specific complaints, but the litany probably won't veer too far from the standard "subpar work" excuse that it generally utilizes to weasel its way out of accountability.

In the past, Trump's refusal to pay his debts has led to numerous business failures. These shuttered companies very likely employed the same types of blue-collar workers who saw Mr. Trump as some kind of economic savior.

John Magnolia, who owns Joseph J. Magnolia, Inc., a Washington based plumbing and heating firm, was trying to put a good face on the nearly $3 million bill that Trump owes his company. Mr. Magnolia told a reporter for the Washington Post, "Unfortunately, Mr. Trump and Ivanka and so forth, they are, I guess, preoccupied by other matters now. They are trying to go run the country. So we'll just see what happens."

What will happen is that Trump will direct his legion of lawyers to keep the lawsuit tied up in court for so long that it will be financially impossible for Mr. Magnolia to pursue it much less prevail in it, but that shouldn't detract from the encouragement that everyone must feel knowing that Ivanka Trump is preoccupied with running the country.

The president-elect has also shown contempt for constitutional edicts requiring him to divest himself of any business ventures that would pose a conflict of interest with his position as president. This is an especially troubling stance for the highest level representative of a political party that screams about attempted assaults on the Second Amendment every time more innocent Americans become statistics in the never-ending carnage caused by the proliferation of guns in this country.

On Jan. 5, a 26-year-old Iraq War veteran opened fire in the baggage claim area of the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport killing five people and wounding eight more. Esteban Santiago's family said that he had been exhibiting symptoms of mental instability since he returned from Mr. Bush's war in the Middle East. Last November, he told authorities at an FBI office in Anchorage, Alaska that he was hearing voices that were urging him to commit violent acts. The FBI informed the local police. The police took Santiago's gun away from him. They returned it a month later.

A man who very plainly exhibited mentally unstable conduct was not only allowed to keep a gun in a family that included his infant son, he was granted a concealed weapons permit. And for all the self-serving verbiage about airport security, Santiago was able to simply put the gun in his luggage, where it remained until he pulled it out in a major American airport and began randomly firing at peoples' heads.

The slavish devotion to the sanctity of the Second Amendment certainly exacts a terrible toll in a country that doesn't bat an eye at Trump's contemptuous disregard for the emoluments clause in the same Constitution.

Alden Graves is a regular Banner columnist.

The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Bennington Banner.


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