Sunday, February 12, 2017
It must have been at least 15 years ago.
One of the Agency heads-a Presidential appointee-was retiring. And so they had a big retirement party at one of the hotels. There had to have been 100 people there. Good food and a wet bar. It was a nice affair.
I was seated at a table that was purchased by a man whose company did a lot of business with this particular agency. He was there along with his CEO who is a woman I went to college with. We were then, and still are, very good friends.
Her boss offered to buy me a drink after I sat down. I told him I couldn't let him do that. He evidently had been drinking pretty good before I got there which helped fuel the indignation on his part when I refused his offer.
"You too good to let me buy you one?" he asked.
"Nothing of the sort," I said. "the Ethics in Government Act does not allow me to accept gifts from people that we do business with."
"That's ridiculous!" he exclaimed a little louder than I would have liked. This was getting uncomfortable.
His CEO got between us.
"Look," she said. "I'll settle this. You and I have been friends for a hundred years. I can buy you a drink."
"Yes,"I said. "You can buy me a drink. But your boss cannot." Actually, under the circumstances, she probably couldn't either. But things were getting tense.
I then turned to one of the Agency's Contracting Officers that was sitting close by nursing a bourbon.
"And he can't buy you one either."
The poor man looked at me as if I had outlawed Christmas. Which I sorta had done.
I remembered this episode when I read about the recent flap about Trump aide Kellyanne Conway and her urging people to "go buy Ivanka's stuff" after Nordstrom's Department store announced that it was changing it's relationship with Ivanka due to poor sales.
Now, not only was this petty and vindictive, it was arguably illegal. Federal law bars public employees from endorsing products. And she's on Uncle Sam's payroll now.
Naturally folks are calling for investigations, if not for her head.
Which I think is an overreaction. On a scale of 1 to 10 this gaff rates about a 3 in the universe of crazy formerly known as 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Granted, the Ethics in Government Act may not apply to the President and his appointees. But Godalmighty doesn't anybody in the new administration have an eye for appearance's sakes? From the President's refusal to put his businesses in a trust to this, nobody up there seems to be bothered by textbook conflicts of interest. That seems obvious to me.
When I was in government service I wouldn't let anybody I didn't have a personal relationship with buy me nothing. Ever. Not counsel opposite who wanted to buy me lunch one day in Woodville, Louisiana. And yes, I did get all of the big gigs.
Anyway, when I politely turned him down he said, "But this is Louisiana. Nobody cares about that shit down here." Which was funny. But unpersuasive.
Not the lawyer in whose office we were doing depositions in Baton Rouge. He offered to cater lunch. All us government types said we would pay our share. I knew a lawyer who always produced his credentials when he stayed in hotels on vacation so he could get the government rate. Really.
I did accept a Christmas drink that had been sent over to me by a lawyer on the other side of the restaurant. We had been going at each other for about 5 years. By that time we had become friends. And we still are.
Now I don't mean to suggest that I deserved the Congressional Medal of Honor. Or that I was more ethically attuned than most other civil servants. But I always felt that in public service you had to have a bell in your head that warns you when you are about to cross the line. If only for appearance's sake. Because appearances matter.
Would I have been indicted if I took a drink from the man at the party? No. But I always felt that if you started fudging on the little stuff, it might get easier to fudge on the bigger stuff. I know myself very well. I yield to temptation. Best not to get started on the easy stuff. Best to draw a bright line and try never to cross it. Even if it hurts somebody's feelings.
They say that Conway has been "counseled" about popping off in this manner. I say that is about all they need to do with her this one time. She said she was kidding. What the hell. She probably was.
But good God. She would have been better off if she had heard a bell in her head before she opened her mouth.