Smiley Out the Ethical Door

In fairness, it’s entirely possible this is just an elegant way for Brett Smiley to exit the executive branch of state government in the knowledge that he and incoming Governor Daniel McKee wouldn’t be a good fit (particularly if Smiley were to become a candidate for the boss’s job, or at least be in a competing arena).  Still, with the ethical cloud under which it is happening, something seems off about his announced departure from his job as the director of the state Department of Administration:

R.I. Department of Administration director Brett Smiley is resigning ahead of an expected run for Providence mayor, as his campaign has come under fire in recent weeks over controversial donations.

The Providence Democrat sent out a letter Wednesday announcing his resignation and expressing gratitude to the state, his employees and Gov. Gina Raimondo, who appointed him roughly a year ago to serve as director of administration.

One way to interpret the various facts is that Smiley intends to do things as part of his campaign that would violate the Code of Ethics if he were in office.  That possibility exposes one of the central conceits of ethics laws:  that favors can’t be bought and sold on an accounts payable basis.  If it is not ethical for somebody to take money from an interested party while he is a director, how is it ethical for him to take it when he may soon be a mayor or even a governor (depending how the political winds go)?

To state this conundrum is not to imply that a solution is obvious.  In general, however, we can file it with the evidence that our sense of ethics needs an update.  While it is worthwhile to know what lines are absolutely too far to cross, we too often treat those lines as the boundaries within which all play is fair play.  Add in an appointed and politically minded Ethics Commission granted the authority to declare officials ethical or unethical, and all you’ve done is create another power base by which to game the rules.

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