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So much for female ethics

By
November 7, 2007

Any smidgen of hope I managed to harbor that women politicians have a keener sense of ethics or honesty than their male counterparts was smashed to scintillas after listening to a radio interview with Acting Consumer Product Safety Commission Nancy Nord.

She, who is charged with protecting America’s children from unsafe, possibly deadly toys, was interviewed on public radio after the Washington Post revealed she and her predecessor at the agency accepted some $60,000 in travel accommodations from the same toy manufacturers and other industry denizens whom she is charged with regulating. Nord defends her practices with the claims that A — she needed to go on those trips to meet with industry officials to discuss toy safety and B — that all trips were cleared by the commission’s attorneys who examined them for possible conflicts of interest.

In the radio interview, Nord was asked about a Washington Post report that revealed Nord and another Consumer Product Safety Commission official took some 30 trips totaling $60,000 paid for by one of the industries they regulate.

“Don’t you think that gives the appearance of a conflict of interest?” the interviewer questioned.

Nord responded that government permission to take the free trips was granted only following painstaking review by the commission’s Office of General Counsel. She noted that the commission has gone to the Toy Fair (a major toy industry event in NYC) every year and it was part of her job to do so.

The interviewer went on to query, “Sure, but then why not have the government pay for your travel?”

Nord: responded it was because Congress and the federal government have regulations that not only allow, but say the Consumer Product Safety Commission can do that (take industry-supported trips) and that what, “we look for is that there is no conflict of interest and no appearance of a conflict of interest.”

The interview went off in a different direction from there on. The follow up question should have been, “So, can you maintain a straight face and tell me there’s no conflict of interest when your travel costs are paid for by the industry you’re supposed to regulate and bar from producing unsafe or substandard toys?” But no such question was asked, nor was it ever answered.

The supposition that women politicians are more trustworthy, ethical or honest than men are old fashioned at best and sexist at worst. I understand that. Still, those who are, like it or not, still primarily responsible for teaching children right from wrong and honesty from dishonesty are given credit by society, on a subliminal level at least, for holding themselves to higher ethical standards.

Nord is certainly not the only woman to be tone deaf to unethical behavior. She’s not even one of the four women picked by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (citizensforethics.org) to land on its “Criminals and Scoundrels” list, a compilation of “The 25 Most Corrupt Officials of the Bush Administration.”

And to be bipartisan about this, we all know Democratic Sen. Hillary Clinton was tinged by scandal during her time as first lady in the White House, via associations with the Whitewater and “travelgate” scandals.

But the level of tone-deafness among female Bush appointees seems to rise to a decibel level that would blow out even the ear drums of a corpse. Another woman on CREW’s list, General Services Administration Administrator Lurita Doan, has worked tirelessly to trim government oversight of the more than $60 billion in government contracts her agency lets each year. Government oversight was set up to prevent people from robbing the federal treasury.

Doan was investigated by her own agency’s Office of Special Counsel for Hatch Act violations. That act bars political appointees from engaging in partisan politics while on duty. But Doan convened a national teleconference in January, 2007 of top GSA political appointees to listen to a spiel by one of Karl Rove’s deputies. She later asked the group how they could help “our candidates” (meaning Republicans) in the ’08 elections. That’s a big no-no.

Certainly other government officials of both sexes and both major parties have done worse. But to stand firm and try to defend such behavior rather than resign in disgrace adds arrogance to ignorance. Call me old fashioned, but I expect higher standards of these women.

(Bonnie Erbe is a TV host and columnist. E-mail bonnieerbe(at)CompuServe.com.)