Here’s the argument you’re already hearing against prosecuting Nez Perce County Commissioner Doug Havens for violating the state’s ethics in government law:
It’s penny ante stuff.
You’re talking about chump change.
Last year, Havens paid $5 each to purchase a 50-year-old operating table, a toolbox, a filing cabinet and a windshield wiper display box at a county auction. What triggered an Idaho attorney general’s investigation was this detail: As a county commissioner, he had a hand in declaring those items surplus and putting them up for sale.
Havens didn’t take it seriously last summer.
Not much money was involved, he said.
He was simply taking the property off the county’s hands, he said.
It was Clerk-Auditor Patty O. Weeks’ fault because she should not have allowed him and other county employees to participate in the auction, he said.
“Her people were the ones that signed everybody up,” Havens said. “They probably should have said something and nipped it in the bud right there.”
And he doesn’t appear to be taking it seriously now that the attorney general’s office has charged him with four counts of breaking the law.
It’s only $20, he said.
He’d give the stuff back, he said.
And he wants to know who put the target on his back in the first place.
“That might be more interesting than $20,” Havens said.
Of course, if little things don’t matter, what does?
Years ago, then-New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Police Commissioner William Bratton took the opposite view.
They adopted the “broken windows” strategy to law enforcement. By taking a tough line on small crimes — evading subway fares, drinking in public, graffiti, shaking down motorists with a squeegee bottle and vandalism — you instill a deterrence toward lawbreaking in all forms. And you build a culture of confidence among law-abiding citizens, whose investment and involvement creates a virtuous cycle in their communities.
It worked. For decades, New York’s rate of all crimes — petty and major — fell.
That’s essentially the approach Republican Attorney General Lawrence Wasden has taken toward public corruption cases.
To Wasden, it’s not the amount of money that matters.
It’s the deed.
When former Minidoka County Sheriff Kevin Halverson used a county fuel card for personal use, Wasden’s office did not look the other way because only $241 was involved. Wasden’s office charged and convicted the sheriff.
When former Bonneville County Prosecutor Kimball Mason was caught taking firearms from a police evidence room, Wasden’s office didn’t rationalize the stolen items as surplus property of dubious value. Mason was prosecuted and convicted.
When former Jefferson County Sheriff Blair Olsen gave his wife a county cellphone — the value of which approached $1,000 — Wasden’s office pursued the case.
Idaho’s ethics in government act does not carve out an exception for a $5 operating table or a $5 toolbox. It says: “State, county, district, precinct and city officers must not be purchasers at any sale nor vendors at any purchase made by them in their official capacity.”
Neither does the state’s bribery and corruption law exclude $5 windshield wipers or a $5 file cabinet.
It applies to a public official who acts “without the specific authorization of the governmental entity for which he serves” and uses “public funds or property to obtain a pecuniary benefit for himself” while relying on “confidential information gained in the course of or by reason of his official capacity.”
Both are misdemeanors carrying a maximum penalty of one year in jail and/or a $1,000 fine.
But Havens may have caught a break here. Had he been charged under the bribery and corruption law instead of the public ethics statute, he could have faced the threat of expulsion from office if convicted.
Call it the “broken windows” approach to ethics in government.
If you stop a county commissioner from bidding on a $5 toolbox today, you just might stop the next county commissioner from soaking the taxpayers for painting his car and equipping it with a new set of tires tomorrow.
Ethical behavior reinforces itself.
So does the people’s trust in their government.
Havens and his supporters may not be taking this seriously.
But you can bet Wasden’s office will. — M.T.