Tag Archives: smoke alarms

Corruption Comes in Many Flavors

One of the elements of the recent McCutcheon decision that has had many lawyers shaking their heads is the majority’s airy dismissal of concerns about the many ways dollars corrupt the system.

The majority limited the definition of corruption to the receipt of a quid pro quo.

Now, obviously, the exchange of money for a legislator’s vote is a corrupt act. It is also illegal. The majority seems to believe that only such blatant and illegal acts–outright bribes–are unethical.

If that cramped understanding of the ethical obligations of citizens and public servants carries the day, it won’t take long until we inhabit a society that has lost whatever is left of its moral center.

Let’s look at a couple of examples that are currently playing locally.

State Representative Eric Turner is currently being investigated for working feverishly behind the scenes to derail a law that would have hurt his son’s nursing home business. (According to the Indianapolis Star last Sunday, Turner also had significant personal investments that would have been negatively affected by the legislation.) If the allegations are proven, Turner is probably guilty of breaking a law, although that isn’t entirely clear–but even if his behavior didn’t actually violate a statute, is there any doubt that such actions were unethical?

Then there’s the smoke alarm ordinance that I blogged about awhile back. Counselor Scales (who seems to be the only City-County Counselor at all concerned about the fact that it would hand one vendor a probable monopoly) asked for and received an opinion from legal counsel. She was told that an offer–a quid pro quo, actually–that didn’t enrich anyone personally isn’t a violation of the City’s ethics ordinance.

If you’ll recall, the ordinance would require property owners to purchase smoke alarms with non-removable, non-replaceable “sealed” batteries with a ten-year life.  The company that manufactures those alarms, and would benefit from the requirement, promised IFD “free smoke detectors, payment for TV and radio public-service announcements, press events and donations to IFD-favored charities” in exchange for IFD’s support for the ordinance.

No firefighter was bribed, but the department would certainly benefit from the “generosity” of the vendor–and needless to say, the vendor would benefit financially from passage of that ordinance. IFD didn’t solicit “bids” and didn’t give other smoke alarm companies an opportunity to match the “gifts.” That said, no law was broken. The Ethics ordinance wasn’t violated.

The McCutcheon majority would dismiss these–and countless similar examples–as mere persuasion. Free speech. The prerogative of those who are engaged in commerce.

The fact that such behaviors take place behind closed doors is a pretty good indication that the people involved know that such activities–legal or not–aren’t kosher. Legal doesn’t equal ethical, no matter how disconnected from reality the Court’s majority remains.

An Ethics Question

In yesterday’s Star, Matt Tully reminded readers of a longstanding problem in the Indiana General Assembly–the multiple conflicts of interest that influence lawmaking in the Hoosier state, and the disinclination to do anything about it.

In fact, if quotes from state lawmakers are any indication, we’ve elected a fair number of people who wouldn’t recognize a conflict if it bit them on the you-know-what.

City government is evidently not exempt from that problem.

City-County Councilor Christine Scales has raised an question about the ethics of a proposal that certainly deserves more consideration than it has gotten thus far: a pending ordinance would require property owners to purchase smoke alarms with non-removable, non-replaceable “sealed” batteries with a ten-year life. On the surface, this is a reasonable safety measure, since many homeowners fail to replace shorter-lived batteries, and are thus unprotected if a fire occurs.

However, according to Counselor Scales, not only are the smoke alarms in question relatively expensive, the technology that would be required by the ordinance (a) has some safety issues of its own, which have been the subject of previous televised investigative reports; and (b) is proprietary to one company, which means the ordinance would have the effect of giving that company a monopoly on sales in Indianapolis. It further appears that the company in question has promised IFD “free smoke detectors, payment for TV and radio public-service announcements, press events and donations to IFD-favored charities” in exchange for IFD’s support for the ordinance.

I know absolutely nothing about smoke alarm technology. Perhaps the Councilor’s safety concerns are unfounded. But the ethics questions she raises are troubling and entirely legitimate, and deserve airing, and they aren’t being addressed. Instead, she reports that her questions have been met with stonewalling and silence.

Is Marion County proposing to hand a manufacturer a monopoly in return for a quid pro quo?