After spending two hours taking an on-line ethics course required of Los Angeles elected officials, city board members, and commissioners, I finished feeling triumphant but depressed.
Triumphant because I passed the three quizzes that accompanied the course and will get a certificate. If Iíd flunked, who knows? I might have been required to take Bonehead Ethics.
The three hours reinforced something I already knew. That was the depressing part. Although you can make it tougher for crooks to operate, you canít legislate ethical behavior.
The test is required by a new state law requiring local officials to take a three hour ethics course on how to behave ethically. The legislature dreamed this up so it could have a holier-than-thou attitude toward the antics of some of the locals, particularly those operating in the free-fire zone of southeastern Los Angeles County.
But consider the ethics of the legislators who made us take the course. These are the men and women who run wall-to-wall fund raisers toward the end of every session, seeking and receiving campaign contributions from lobbyists, business people, and unions who have dealings in Sacramento.
Two points struck me. The campaign finance, conflict of interest and ethics laws, especially those of the state, are more complicated than I thought. In fact, a section explaining certain aspects of the state law was so complicated that it could not be explained in the exam summary.
Why canít they make things simple?. Several years ago, the late Frank del Olmo and I were given the job of writing an ethics code for the Los Angeles Times. Our boss, Bill Thomas, told us to keep it simple, not like some of the ethics codes being promulgated at other papers. We did, although it was not as simple as the ethics lesson I give my journalism students at USC: ďDonít lie, donít steal, donít sleep with your news sources.Ē
Something else that troubles me about the ethics class is that none of these ethics reform measures seem to make much difference. In fact, one of the laws we studied in the course was first passed by the legislature in 1851. The years that followed were remarkably corrupt, a state of affairs that extended into the 20th century and even continues to this day.
Campaign contributions -- the target of some of these ethics rules -- remain the corrupting force in politics. As a newly minted ethics scholar, I know that they canít be eliminated. But their impact can be limited through public financing of political campaigns. We can examine that subject further in a graduate ethics course.