Monday, March 9, 2015

Maybe This is THE Year?

The return of baseball — at least to the lush-looking diamonds of Florida — means that “there’s always next year” is now “this year” and that we can count down the days until we’ve got real games in Pawtucket and Boston to enjoy. Unfortunately, the other news this week seems just as eternal in the Biggest Little — yet another public official has violated the public trust and enriched himself through his public position.

I don’t know about the rest of you, but I’m beyond “saddened and disappointed” and have gone right to “disgusted and infuriated.” Using $108,000 in campaign donations for personal use is appalling, but brazenly taking a $52,500 bribe (in checks!) is such an abuse of the public trust that three years in federal prison does not seem like nearly enough punishment. Does anyone else think it could be the tip of the iceberg? After all, investigators have admitted that they learned of the bribe during the course of the campaign finance investigation — perhaps one of the checks had “bribe” on the memo line — so the “Shock Bah” liquor license might not be the only place where Fox took money to influence a decision.

What makes me really angry is that the overwhelming majority of elected officials are honest in their dealings and very careful with their campaign accounts, but the Fox case is once again going to cast a pall over public service. Rhode Island suffers because we don’t always have the “best and brightest” people willing to run for office and yet each year, something happens to make it even less appealing to be involved. Today a General Assembly job description would read something like “Legislator: 15-30 hours per week for 6 months, weekend events required year-round, position mandates multiple late nights with boring hearings and endless constituent calls to your home leaving you little time to support your family. If you are dedicated, it pays about $13/ hour, a little more if you don’t always show up. Comes with health benefits and a ton of public distrust. Reapplication every two years is required at which time your work ethic and decision making will be publicly questioned.” Gee, where can I sign up for that job?

The combined costs of his big house, expensive car and ailing law practice add up to the clear conclusion that Gordon Fox was living above his means, took a bribe and stole from his campaign account to cover his bills. I am not suggesting that we give him a lot of sympathy, but I think that if we are asking people to spend a considerable amount of their time in public service, we should pay them enough so that are not tempted to skim from their campaign accounts or supplement their income through bribes. If we shrink the size of the legislature, pay them a more substantial salary and mandate a shorter session, this area of public service might be more appealing to more Rhode Islanders and not give legislators the urge to steal to pay their veterinarian bills. These ideas are not mine — and aren’t even new — but perhaps this is THE year that we should talk frankly about what we are asking people to do in the name of public service and what we should expect from them in return.

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