Social activist Jane Addams once declared, “Action is indeed the sole medium of expression for ethics.”
So, what does it mean when a governor makes threats to compel a resignation?
Travis County includes Austin, the capital city of Texas, within its jurisdiction.
The Public Integrity Unit (PIU) is a division of the Travis County District Attorney’s Office which prosecutes public corruption. Rosemary Lehmberg is the district attorney of Travis County. Last year, Lehmberg pleaded guilty to DUI, following an embarrassing incident.
Governor Perry demanded that Lehmberg resign, or else he would veto state PIU funding.
Lehmberg refused and Governor Perry vetoed PIU funding stating, “Despite the otherwise good work the Public Integrity Unit’s employees, I cannot in good conscience support continued state funding for an office with statewide jurisdiction at a time when the person charged with ultimate responsibility of that unit has lost the public’s confidence.”
The American Society for Public Administration Code of Ethics reminds us, “Promote the interests of the public and put service to the public above service to oneself.”
Because the PIU prosecutes public corruption, this funding cut hindered anticorruption efforts. Rather than harming District Attorney Lehmberg, this act harmed the ability of the PIU to defend the public trust.
This situation with Governor Perry parallels another governor who had presidential aspirations. Even before his inauguration, Massachusetts Governor-elect Mitt Romney entered the dramatic stage surrounding University of Massachusetts President William M. Bulger in 2002.
When a U.S. House Committee on Government Reform subpoenaed Bulger to testify December 6, 2002, in a highly publicized media event, grand jury minutes from two years earlier were illegally leaked to The Boston Globe days before he was scheduled to testify.
Subsequently, Bulger was denied access to his own grand jury minutes in preparation for the December hearing and invoked his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. This was construed as a failure to cooperate with the Committee. Ultimately, he did testify June 19, 2003 and answered all questions posed by the congressional panel.
While it was never a secret that his older brother had chosen a life very different from his own, Bulger enjoyed popular support in the state Legislature for 35 years, never losing an election between 1960 and 1994. He was the longest-serving state senate president in Massachusetts history. Bulger retired in 1996 to assume the University of Massachusetts presidency.
Governor Romney urged the University of Massachusetts (UMass) board of trustees to fire President Bulger.
Following consultation with an attorney and a vote, Board Chair Grace Fey announced that the Trustees wouldn’t seek Bulger’s removal adding, “In fact, the evidence is that the quality of our students, our fund-raising and research funding have all increased dramatically in recent years.”
Around this time, the Massachusetts Republican Party also filed ethics complaints against members of the UMass board of trustees, which were eventually dismissed.
Whether or not President Bulger should have resigned is a separate issue from whether Governor Romney should have threatened to appoint known Bulger enemies to serve on the UMass Board.
These include controversial figures like George Daher, who once publicly derided Bulger as a “corrupt midget” and radio talk show host Howie Carr. Among these is Harvard Law School Professor Alan Dershowitz, who believes in torture and that because “countries all over the world violate the Geneva Accords,” then it’s OK for America to do it, too.
Is placing these individuals at the helm of the University of Massachusetts in the public interest?
Unlike Lehmberg, Bulger ultimately chose to resign, citing a “calculated political assault” against UMass which included “character attacks on distinguished members of our board of trustees, and by the creation of a stated ‘litmus test’ stipulating that future members of the UMass Board must be willing to sign away their independent judgment before taking their seats.”
President Bulger continued by hopefully opining, “Our work will continue. Despite the many challenges, this University will persevere – and it will prosper. The University is larger than any of us who have the privilege to serve it, and in serving it, we have a solemn obligation to act in the University’s best interest – as I believe I am today.”
No one forced him to resign. It wouldn’t have been until 2006 that Governor Romney would have made enough appointments to the Board to hold a majority in support of his termination.
By definition, President Bulger’s voluntary sacrifice exemplifies the meaning of public service.
Like Bulger, Horace Mann served as Massachusetts State Senate President and later as an education reformer. In his final commencement speech to students at Antioch College, Mann issued a bold call for action: “Be ashamed to die until you have won some victory for humanity.”