Thursday, December 28, 2006


Thanks to my reader from Madison, Wisc., I've an update to the column I wrote on November 5, 2006, "For Whose Eyes Only," about campaign documents detailing the Democratic Party's strategic plans for last November's election that somehow ended up in Republican Party hands. (The original column can be read at

The State of Wisconsin Ethics Board issued a press advisory today (December 28, 2006), that indicated that a Senate staffer had taken the documents from a folder and copied them on a state-owned photocopier and then gave copies to his Republican colleagues.

The Ethics Board fined the staffer $100 for using a state-owned copier, but determined that "Laws the Ethics Board administers do not address the appropriateness of...taking the Democratic documents and conveying them to his Republican colleagues." (The complete text of the State of Wisconsin Ethics Board Press Advisory can be found at

The Board's finding leaves open the question of the ethics of taking the documents that the staffer knew were not his own and then sharing them with colleagues to use in their campaigns. The advisory does not address whether, simply because the action fell outside of the laws administered by the Ethics Board, the board condones it as an ethical act.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

My first impulse was to say that this ethical dilemma is a “no-brainer.” Copying the documents was wrong, it appeared. Then I read your references and noticed a slight difference between your presentation and the Wisconsin Ethics Board account. You said, “The State of Wisconsin Ethics Board issued a press advisory yesterday (December 28, 2006) that indicated that a Senate staffer had taken the documents from a folder and copied them on a state-owned photocopier and then gave copies to his Republican colleagues.”

The Ethics Board’s statement was “During the Ethics Board’s interview of Senate staffer John O’Brien, Mr. O’Brien acknowledged that he discovered the documents in an unattended folder at the capitol and photocopied the documents on a state photocopier.”

What we don’t know is if the documents were deliberately “taken from a folder” on someone’s desk or “discovered … unattended” at the copy machine or in the rest room or some other “public” spot nearby. If the former, well, it’s still a “no-brainer.”

But let’s say that a Democrat staffer was so careless as to leave sensitive material in an open and easily accessible place. Yes, the “right thing” to do would be to return the folder, unexamined, to its rightful owner. But this would be such a huge “find” for a Republican staffer that he would kick himself around for the rest of his life if he thought that sharing the carelessly-handled information could have made a difference in the election. His conflict would be: “Should I do what I think is for the greater good of the country and my values” (copying the handy information and getting hearty kudos from his superiors) or “Should I return the documents to my equally intense political opponents without looking beyond the cover page, when it might make the difference between winning and losing the election?”

He would also know that for his own survival in the political world, he could never tell a colleague what he found but returned to “the enemy” unread. If he did tell, it would be kind of like facing your teammates after telling an out-of-position official that you stepped on the sideline on the way to returning an intercepted pass for the game-winning touchdown.

(I apologize for using “him” in this response. As I wrote, it got messy trying to keep up with genders [he/she; him/her], so I tried to keep it simple.)

I am reminded of a personal experience. I never cheated in high school or college or in my Naval Officer Candidate School training. After surviving the rigors of OCS, I had “made it” except for taking and passing the final exam in the engineering course, which for me was the most difficult subject. If I didn’t pass that exam - no matter how well I did in the other courses - I would not graduate with my class. I would have had to go through the whole miserable process again or be sent to the dreaded “Great Lakes” boot camp and become an enlisted man. No shame in that, but I was the only son of my father, an Annapolis graduate and WWII veteran and mother, an honors graduate from Smith College. Well, as time went by the instructor left the room. While I was still struggling with the exam, one of my fellow officer candidates (one whom I didn’t know very well, but well enough to know that he was a heck of a lot smarter at engineering than I was) came from the back of the room to turn in his paper. To my surprise, he stopped at my desk, briefly looked at the most recent of my selection of multiple choice answers, told me what he thought were the correct answers to four or five questions he thought I had answered incorrectly, and walked off.

This was a huge ethical dilemma for me. I had made it that far in life without cheating, and our section was the only one in the battalion who had not lost a man to flunking out (in part, I think, thanks to some cheating). With the stakes that high, I swallowed hard and changed my answers, on the assumption that my “friend” was right.

When the grades were posted, it turned out that I would have passed the exam (not by much) even if I hadn’t changed my answers. It was not my proudest moment (passed the engineering test, but failed the ethical one), but boy! my life would have been a lot different if I had not passed the engineering test. A lot of time has gone by since then. I am an honest person (some would say to a fault), but I think that if I were in that same situation again, I would probably (gulp) do the same thing.

Best regards,

Phil Clutts
Harrisburg, NC