Humans have shortcomings. Even those who profess to follow traditions that espouse the highest ethical standards have problems. Even those that do more than profess, but really try to follow ethical principles occasionally fall short. It’s part of the imperfect sphere in which we live. But when someone that is religious falls short, we take notice, because we are sharply on guard for hypocrisy.
This is what happened this past summer when it was noted in the news that Health and Human Services Secretary (former Utah governor) Mike Leavitt had some business dealings that looked to be less than ethical (see Washington Post article). It seems that Leavitt reduced taxes by claiming $1.2 million in charitable donations to his family’s charitable foundation when the foundation actually used only about $101,000 for charitable causes.
Part of the reason some people paid more attention to the Leavitt story is the fact that Leavitt is a practicing member of the LDS Church, which teaches its members to be “honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and [to do] good to all men” (here). The church’s culture tends to encourage members to put themselves up on a pedestal in this regard.
Now another high profile politician who is active in the LDS Church is taking a few lumps for shady ethical deals. Senator Harry Reid (D-NV), who is the Senate Minority Leader (and could become the majority leader in January depending on the outcome of the election in three weeks), is admitting that he failed to properly report some land deals (see Boston Herald article). One such deal “allowed him to collect $1.1 million in 2004 for property he hadn’t personally owned in three years.”
It does not appear to be an issue of failing to properly pay taxes, but rather an issue of failing to properly report the land transactions in congressional ethics reports, as required by law. These reports are required to help foster transparency in whom has influence with whom in Congress. In addition to this, it was discovered that Reid paid about $3300 out of his campaign fund for Christmas bonuses to employees of “the support staff at the Ritz-Carlton where he lives in an upscale condominium.” Reid is reimbursing his campaign for those expenditures.
The Reid story appears to have shorter legs than the Leavitt story. Part of the reason for that is the nature of the offenses. Leavitt’s deductions of donations to his family charity that is really not very charitable seem fishy from the outset. Frankly, only political junkies are going to care about Reid’s $3300 in Christmas bonuses improperly paid by his campaign. On the land deals, Reid’s chief offenses amount to a failure to file the proper paperwork, and he’s amending the paperwork. It’s not clear whether there was actual intent to cover anything up.
Of course, Reid may have had good reason to cover something up. The series of financial transactions that allowed the senator to make over $1 million on land he didn’t own leaves a bad taste in your mouth, even if nothing illegal occurred. However, it does seem that many would be overjoyed to fall into a similar deal that violated no laws. But, as Leavitt’s problem shows, failing to violate laws does not mean that it was ethical.
Politicians live in a glass house where perception is usually as important as—and sometimes more important than—reality. While people sort of expect failings in their politicians, Mormon politicians are held to a higher standard than the average politician because they profess to follow a higher standard. And when they stumble, it can seem more poignant because they fall from what is purported to be a higher level.
What the Leavitt and Reid episodes demonstrate is that Mormon politicians also have human failings. And what this means is that when it comes to politicians, even ones that espouse a higher standard, we need to keep our eyes wide open.