Columns » Warwick Sabin

No sacrifice

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TheStreet.com this week reported more details about a new company started by Asa Hutchinson and other former government officials. Hutchinson, who is running for Arkansas governor as a Republican, is a former U.S. congressman and most recently was undersecretary of the federal Department of Homeland Security. Now he is a “special adviser” to Fortress America Acquisition Corp., which the article describes as a “start-up whose only products are the resumes of its politically connected board and backers.” Through his position, Hutchinson was able to acquire 200,000 of the company shares for the “bargain-basement price” of 14 cents each ($28,000 total), according to the story. Furthermore, the Securities and Exchange Commission calls Fortress America a “blank check” company, because it does not have any real operations and only exists to enable a merger. That means Hutchinson is lending his name and reputation to a speculative venture designed to turn a quick profit. While he is not doing anything illegal, there is something particularly offensive about someone trading on just-completed government service, especially when that person is running for another office. But it is one more step along the slippery slope that began when elected and appointed officials started capitalizing on their personal connections and bureaucratic knowledge by becoming lobbyists and consultants as soon as they leave their public positions. It is happening more and more with every passing year, regardless of partisan affiliation. While knowledge and access are commodities that businesses and special interests are willing to pay for, there should be stricter limits on these kinds of arrangements. The potential for corruption is simply too great, because if government officials know they stand to make a lot of money in the private sector, how can they be trusted to make objective decisions strictly in behalf of the public interest? It appears that the concept of sacrifice has been dropped from the responsibilities of public service. For another example, look at what Gov. Mike Huckabee has been doing lately. He is spending a considerable amount of time away from Arkansas promoting a book he wrote about his own weight loss. All of the profits of that book are going into his personal bank account. Plus all of the national media exposure he is getting will be helpful to the presidential campaign that he is planning. (John Brummett wrote last Sunday that he had it on good authority that “Mike Huckabee really is going to run for president.”) So here we have a politician using the authority and visibility of his office to enrich himself and enhance his career — at the direct expense of the duties he was elected to execute. His supporters would probably say that the state is running just fine in his absence, but it is an inescapable fact that when Huckabee is out-of-state on his book tour or in his new role as co-chair of the National Governors Association, he is not grappling with the issues facing Arkansas. And after all, that is the job he agreed to do when he took an oath and moved into the state-funded mansion. Yes, Bill Clinton and many other public officials have neglected the demands of their current positions as they campaigned for higher offices. We are told that’s just what you have to do to get elected. Yes, plenty of other politicians have accepted personal gifts and found an assortment of ways to profit financially from government service. We are told that’s just the way the system works. But we shouldn’t accept it. When people are granted positions of authority over the lives of others, they should recognize the trust invested in them, and they should not actively use their office for personal gain. That is admittedly an obvious point, but it’s worth remembering as our society becomes increasingly tolerant of selfish and corrupt behavior. When House Majority Leader Tom DeLay can escape punishment for outrageous ethics violations, it’s easy to dismiss Hutchinson’s and Huckabee’s actions as relatively minor cases. However, both men made conscious decisions to chart a particular course toward more money and fame. If neither man is willing to make personal sacrifices to serve in public offices, they should at least be answerable for their choices.

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