Monday, June 19, 2017

Saying No to an Illegal Request

Ezra Klein has a piece on Comey and Trump. David Ignatius has another.  The last paragraph:
"Comey’s personal ethical dilemmas are now interwoven with the nation’s political history. It’s the stuff of high drama — the temporizing ethicist meets the amoral bulldozer. The story didn’t have a happy ending for Comey — or, it seems, for the country."

A question, asked by Sen. Feinstein, is why Comey didn't take a stronger stand if he perceived Trump's request as illegitimate, illegal even.  Comey says he wasn't strong enough.

I've sympathy with his quandry.  I remember in the 1990's (1992) receiving a call from a person in my chain of command asking me to donate to the Ranchers and Farmers PAC (Jeffress Wells, now deceased).  This was a violation of the Hatch Act and indeed Wells and two other people were found guilty of a misdemeanor violation for their actions--soliciting political funds using government time and facilities.  But while I refused, I was weak.  I said I had already given to the Dems (which may have been a lie, but I did contribute during that election season).  That gave me sufficient leverage to argue my way out of giving.

So like Comey I didn't stand up and say: "that would be wrong, you're violating the law, etc."  Why not?  For me, I was taken by surprise and I'm rarely very good when I'm surprised.  I didn't have the Hatch Act at the tip of my tongue; indeed I never thought of the law until months/years later when the case hit the papers (and a House subcommittee started investigating). I also tend to be ambivalent with authority, trusting it most of the time and fighting it some of the time. So the emotions of standing up to authority, I'd worked with Jeff for 23 years off and on, didn't like him particularly but still, undermined the ability to go further and take a principled stand rather than just an evasive one.

I don't often remember this story, because it's not one I'm particularly proud of.  When I do remember it, as now, it reminds me to be a bit more sympathetic to others who were faced with an illegal request, but whose response was less than a blast on their whistle.

The rest of the story?  I think Wells may have discussed, rather hinted at, the consequences of not giving, but I can't be sure.  Nor can I be sure that later, after Clinton won and Wells was one of the people given power in the transition over the future organization of ASCS, there was any connection between my refusal and the proposed dissolution of the branch I was heading.  Jeff and I had a couple run-ins in this general time period--I was working closely with the ASCS "trail boss", linked with the Republicans, trying to reengineer our systems and Jeff wanted to kill it--NIH.  Whether the refusing donations preceded that, or not, I don't remember.

The way things came out, Jeff didn't achieve as much power in the new organization as he had hoped and my branch had impressed enough people with their work that we stayed together.  Though I was worried for a good while.

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