I have written here a bit about my 8 year stint in state government. But with the political news of late being dominated by tales of venality and corruption, I am reminded of the little bit of advice I would give people who asked about being in government.
The short version of advice is: READ THE HEADLINES.
The long version really isn't much more complicated--whatever the action, the behavior--I would advise my immediate subordinates--read the headlines. Take whatever it is you are planning to do (or not do) and then write an article, mentally--of course--and write the headline. Then read it. Do you like what it says? Would you be proud to have that headline splashed all over the front page? Yes? Fine. No? Then why do whatever.
So, Rod Blagojevich--you want to "sell" the Senate seat held by now President-elect Obama? Write the headline. Do you like it? Then don't pursue your venal plan.
Bernie Madoff--planning to set up a Ponzi scheme and bilk thousands of people out of billions of dollars, and eventually cause the death of several people. Don't like the headlines? Then skip the phony money scheme.
Then there is the bizarre case of Marc Dreier. He is a prominent NY attorney who tried to impersonate someone (while in Toronto) and then tried to sell phony bonds. I know. . .it is too bizarre. So read the headlines. Don't like the sound? Then skip all the craziness.
I had one other piece of advice to offer. Occasionally, someone would ask me what he or she needed to know before taking a position in state government. My answer? Decide in advance what issue you will fall on your sword for.
What do I mean by that? In state government, there are always pressures--I was a deputy secretary in our state health department. Under me was all quality assurance which included hospital and nursing home licensing, as well as approvals to open health facilities.
So, the governor's office might pressure me to speed up an approval. Or a legislator would tell a constituent that he, the legislator, could get those "do-nothings" in the health department to move things along. And then I would get a call. I would (gently) remind the legislator that the law prohibited such contacts while an application was pending, and did he want me to make a note of this ex parte contact? (The significance of that is that such contacts are discoverable were there ever to be a law suit.) Oh, no, no--the legislator would say--I am not trying to force you to do anything. Right.
So, early on, I decided what issue I could not engage in--had I been ordered to do so, I would have "fallen on my sword."
There you have it--my two pithy pieces of advice: read the headlines, then decide if your action would bear public scrutiny. And know what line you cannot and will not cross.