by: Thomas H. Little, Ph.D. and SLLF Director of Curriculum Development and Research
On February 11, 2010, Representative Gordon Fox stood before the chamber and took the oath of office as the Speaker of the Rhode Island House of Representatives. Just over five years later, on March 3, 2015, Fox stood before a U.S. District Judge and took another oath, answering “It is, your honor,” when asked if the charges of bribery, fraud and filing a false tax return were true. Fox pleaded guilty in March to charges of bribery, wire fraud and filing a false tax return and agreed to a three-year sentence as part of a plea deal.
So exactly how, in less than five years, did one of the most powerful people in Rhode Island politics go from wielding the Speaker’s gavel to standing before a judge’s gavel, and what can other leaders learn from his downfall? Perhaps some of the answers can be found in Fox’s own words when asked what happened, “Greed, keeping up with the Joneses and shiny objects.”
As I read and contemplated his comment, I realized that in that brief statement, Speaker Fox summarized the basic sources of most of the ethical lapses we read about all too often in politics and business today: wanting more than you need, wanting what somebody else has and wanting more than you have.
Greed. Most people want more – more money, more power, more stuff – not so much because we need it, we just want it. However, most people do not engage in illegal activities to get more. That is where greed, defined as “an excessive desire for more,” comes in, often leading to illegal or unethical actions. While many are tempted by money, others are motivated by an excessive desire for power over policies or control over people. While money, power and the ability to influence people can all be used for good, they can also ruin lives and careers when desire for them overtakes everything else.
Keeping up with Joneses. Covetousness is defined as “a painful awareness of another’s possessions or advantages and a desire to have them too.” We see what others have and we want to have it too. My neighbor has a nice car, so I want a nice car. My colleague has a big house, so I want a big house. A fellow legislator goes on expensive vacations, so I want to go on nice vacations too. In fact, we may even believe that we deserve to have what they have. We work just as hard as they do (maybe harder) and we are doing it for the people. Further, given the low salaries and long hours of most state legislators, many convince themselves that not only is it acceptable to “earn” illicit income or accept a vacation cruise from a lobbyist, it is okay because I have earned the right to keep up with the Joneses.
Shiny Things. Most people want nice things. The latest fashion. The hot new technology gizmo. The recently released iPhone. An apartment or condo in the trendiest neighborhood. These shiny things don’t come cheap. Shiny things may be especially tempting for an elected official who is often surrounded by corporate executives, lobbyists and other elected officials in tailored suits who eat at the finest restaurants and drive the most expensive cars. Shiny things are fine as long as you have the resources to buy them.
There you have it – greed, keeping up with the Joneses and shiny things. While you may shake your head disapprovingly and think you would never do such things, I urge you not to take Fox’s story lightly. I am confident that Speaker Fox would have shaken his head just as convincingly two decades ago if someone had asked him if he would end up behind bars at the end of his public service.
Legislative leaders may find themselves tempted in ways both subtle and not so subtle. You may find yourself surrounded by people who tell you that you can do no wrong. And eventually, you may start to believe them! You may begin to believe that you deserve that new car even if you can’t afford it because you work so hard and sacrifice so much. You may begin to think that you are indispensable so cutting a corner here or there is okay so you can be re-elected and continue to help the people of your state. You may get used to going to the finest restaurants and staying at fancy hotels even if you can’t afford them.
To make sure that you don’t fall victim to the kinds of temptations that ended Gordon Fox’s promising political career, you need to protect yourself using a method I call “Stop, Think and Listen.” Stop doing anything that is even close to the line or that might be considered unethical. Think about the potential consequences of your actions on yourself, your family and your institution. Listen to trusted friends, legal counsel and those who have come before you.