Berkley, Heller and the Slippery Meaning of Ethics

It’s time to stop worrying about ethics and start worrying about right and wrong.

They aren’t the same thing. Ethics are the fixed principles of conduct within a particular professional sphere—journalistic ethics, political ethics, etc. Right and wrong involve the best thing to do in a real-world situation where real people can be helped or hurt by your actions.

You’ve undoubtedly seen Republican ads attacking Shelley Berkley, the Democratic Senate candidate, as unethical. She argued in Congress against closing down the University Medical Center’s kidney-transplant facility and against reducing Medicare reimbursement rates for dialysis. On one hand, the closure of the facility would have meant Southern Nevadans would have to leave town for transplants, which is why Berkley’s opponent, Sen. Dean Heller, also fought the closure. On the other hand, Berkley’s husband, Dr. Larry Lehrner, is a kidney specialist with a clear interest in keeping the center open. Ethics say Berkley shouldn’t have entered the fray. But few would disagree that it’s a generally good thing for Southern Nevada to have a functioning transplant center.

Heller also hasn’t emerged unscathed in the ethics-advertising skirmish. As Nevada secretary of state, he ostensibly didn’t do enough about a $64 million stock scam involving Canadian diamond mines that ultimately led to a Nevada federal grand jury issuing 10 indictments. According to news reports, Heller knew a fellow auto racer the company sponsored; he rode in the man’s car with the firm’s name plastered on it after Canadian officials had suspended trading in its stock.

Berkley’s ad duly notes Heller’s pride in his record against fraud as secretary of state. It also notes that Heller received a campaign donation from one of those involved with the diamond company.

So what are we to make of these apparent transgressions by both of our Senatorial candidates? Berkley has said that her intention was only to keep a vital service available here—and that while she might have disclosed her husband’s interest more clearly, it isn’t as though she had hidden his profession. Similarly, Heller has said he had nothing to do with either the scam or the scammer.

Taking all of this at face value, an ethicist might condemn both candidates. They should have acted differently and known better. But try the other standard: Did they do anything wrong? Heller apparently didn’t profit from or adjust his policies in response to the company accused of illegal actions. And, given Berkley’s record on health care and her husband’s wealth from other sources, it seems unlikely that she was aiming to line the family pocketbook. Obviously, some cases leave no opening to debate or interpret. Sen. John Ensign managed to be as morally and ethically wrong as possible when he canoodled with his best friend’s wife. Similarly, when a group of Clark County commissioners took money from a strip-club operator and prostrated themselves for some developers, they were both ethically and morally wrong.

But other examples are more difficult to assess. County Commissioner Tom Collins received $36,000 for a legal defense fund from Las Vegas Paving after he had supported the company in a court case. Were his support and Las Vegas Paving’s support connected? Collins may have done nothing wrong ethically or morally, but it looks like he could have, and that’s not a position anyone, especially a politician running for reelection, wants to be in.

But consider that Collins got more attention recently when he faced a disturbing-the-peace charge for shooting a tree. While he broke the law, in this case a misdemeanor ultimately matters much less than the question of whether he violated a public trust. But shooting a tree, which is wrong under any circumstance, seems more interesting—and certainly easier to reach a conclusion about—than what he did or didn’t do for Las Vegas Paving.

We have an ethics commission that generally has been toothless. We have no Commission on Right and Wrong—unless you count the voters.

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