Integrity is the single most important ethos the public has a right to expect from anyone who participates in the political arena. Beyond party and philosophy, it is the one essential element of governance that each of us must insist upon when doing the people’s business.
Too often our divided politics or the perceived power of an individual has prevented the body politic from speaking out against obvious corruption. Due process is essential for our legal process. But flagrant acts of corruption, abuses of power and illegal activities need to be addressed as soon as they’re recognized.
Josh Koehn of Metro News deserves a Pulitzer Prize for his investigative journalism that led to the criminal charges filed against Supervisor George Shirakawa, who resigned on Friday. Koehn’s exposé ran on Sept. 26, 2012. This was the beginning of the end for the supervisor.
Make no mistake, it was good journalism that broke this story. Reporters followed up on leads and public documents, emboldening investigating agencies. The District Attorney diligently followed up, but the mechanisms in government designed to prevent or catch corruption failed at every level.
The Mercury News was the first to call for the Supervisor’s resignation. Those who always opposed Shirakawa politically were more than gleeful to jump on the bandwagon. Some good government folks—Santa Clara County Assessor Larry Stone and former Supervisor Blanca Alvarado—raised their voices in opposition to the illegal acts of the Supervisor.
But much of the body politic remained largely silent. Community leaders from all walks of life, regardless of party or philosophy, should have condemned the obvious acts of corruption and called for the supervisor to resign.
By failing to speak-out, many of these leaders exacerbated the already prevalent public opinion that all politicians are corrupt. It’s hard to blame the cynical when an elected official flagrantly violates the law for so long with no detection, despite systems in place designed specifically to thwart the very acts that occurred. And when Shirakawa was finally caught, blame was placed on the systems rather than the individual who violated his oath.
Dante said, “The hottest places in hell are reserved for those who, in times of moral crisis, preserve their neutrality.”
Another group of people were some of Shirakawa’s friends and supporters who had a noble but misguided sense of loyalty. Like most enablers, these folks thought they were helping, but they did neither their friend nor the public any favors by defending the indefensible.
In politics, a friend, aide or consultant is often privy to personal private information. People are human and sometimes make mistakes. If tasked with correcting the error without public embarrassment, that is part of the job. However, covering up illegal activity, enabling a pattern of unethical behavior or any breach of fiduciary responsibility to the public is not part of the job. Integrity means that you stand up for what is right when it is difficult.
Shirakawa was at one time my client, a political ally and, most importantly, a friend. But when the facts became clear he had violated the public trust, that interest had to supersede those relationships. His constituents deserved to hear the truth and so did he. There was never going to be a happy ending to this story for him.
In his book Blind Ambition, John Dean tells the story—with immense pain—about having to tell the truth about President Nixon, for whom he served. He served jail time himself for his own role in the Watergate cover-up. But Dean ultimately recognized that his “boss” was really the people of the United States, and that Nixon was simply his manager.
It is a lesson for all who seek public service. Regardless of party, philosophy, personal interest or political fall-out, the public interest must come first.
Santa Clara County is fortunate to have a majority of leaders whose integrity is unchallenged, including the remaining members of the Board of Supervisors. And negative events can sometimes produce positive opportunities. In fact, two of the most ethical women in San Jose are the most common names mentioned to replace Shirakawa in the District 2 seat.
If such representation does come to pass, the residents of district two will ultimately have Josh Koehn to thank.
Rich Robinson is a political consultant in Silicon Valley.