The decline of ethics in America

Paul Schwietering
The expectations of Americans for individuals and institutions to live up to ethical standards have changed drastically during my lifetime.

When I was growing up, the demise of ethical behavior was already starting. In my family we would watch the news every evening. I remember seeing film footage of combat, which we always seemed to be losing, and footage of enormous peace demonstrations.

At first, the Johnson administration insisted that we were winning the war in spite of some indications to the contrary. Then Johnson tried to disengage the United States from the war and announced he would not run for re-election. Then came the Nixon administration.

The administration of George Bush, Jr., made the administrations of Johnson and Nixon look like paragons of ethical behavior. It is difficult to believe that Nixon was impeached and George Bush, Jr., wasn’t. I still remember my disgust when Nancy Pelosi announced after the 2006 elections that impeachment was “off the table.”

It is difficult to convey to young people today how much respect the President of the United States received when I was a little kid. Back then even members of Congress, though not greatly respected as a group, were not held in the contempt that they are today. After Vietnam, Watergate, the assaults on the Constitution perpetrated by the administration of George Bush, Jr., (the “Patriot Act,” “Signing Statements,” surveillance of anti-war protesters without a warrant, etc.), Enron, the Iraq War, and the numerous Halliburton scandals, it is not surprising that the President is regarded as just another politician.

However, it is one thing for politicians, even Presidents, to be considered “ethically challenged.” It is another thing entirely when members of the judiciary are perceived to be unethical, and we are really in trouble when those perceptions are accurate. We rely on judges to be absolutely fair and impartial. A judge who has past associations with a party to a case is expected to recuse himself or herself from that case on the grounds of conflict of interest.

Although I am not a lawyer, it is my understanding that the standard that applies to judicial conduct is that even the appearance of impropriety is sufficient reason for recusal.

Former Penn State Assistant Football Coach Jerry Sandusky has been charged with 40 counts of child molestation by a grand jury. The incidents involved eight boys over a period of at least 12 years. News reports indicate that 10 more potential victims have come forward. When Sandusky was arrested and brought before Pennsylvania District Judge Leslie Dutchcot, prosecutors requested a bond of $500,000 and, if Sandusky was able to post the bond, prosecutors requested that Sandusky be required to wear a GPS ankle bracelet. Prosecutors explained to Dutchcot that Sandusky’s backyard borders on the play area of an elementary school.

Dutchcot ignored the prosecutors’ request and granted Sandusky an unsecured $100,000 bond. An unsecured bond is a bond that doesn’t require posting any money, but the bond is forfeited if the defendant fails to appear at the next scheduled court date.

Dutchcot also refused to require Sandusky to wear a GPS ankle bracelet. One part of this story that no one disputes is that Sandusky met every alleged victim through a charity that he founded, which he named “The Second Mile.” It was supposed to be a program for disadvantaged youth. After Sandusky’s arraignment, newspapers revealed that Dutchcot had not only been a volunteer for Sandusky’s charity but that both she and her husband had contributed money to the program.

Pennsylvania State Representative Mike Vereb (R., – Montgomery County) sent a letter to the Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court asking him to look into why Dutchcot ignored the requests of prosecutors when they sought bail of $500,000 and that Sandusky wear an ankle bracelet for tracking. “I’ve asked the Chief Justice to step in and stop this mockery of justice,” Vereb told the Times-Herald (a Pennsylvania newspaper). Apparently, Representative Vereb’s efforts were not in vain. Two days after Vereb sent his letter, the administrative office of Pennsylvania courts announced that Robert E. Scott, a Senior District Judge in Westmoreland County, would take over the case after Center County Court officials sought an out-of-county jurist. A statement by the court system says Scott, on the bench since 1964, has no known connections to Penn State or The Second Mile charity.

Perhaps I am becoming somewhat cynical, because it no longer surprises me that creatures such as Leslie Dutchcot violate the code of judicial conduct, and I am genuinely astonished when public officials, such as State Representative Mike Vereb, do the right thing and take a stand. Perhaps if there had been somebody like Mike Vereb in the Penn State administration, Sandusky would have been stopped long ago.

Paul Schwietering is a resident of Union Township.