Opinion: Carolina Journal Opinions

The System Made Me Do It

Heaven help the politician who is trapped in forced ethical compromise

There is plenty of mocking and sneering in Raleigh these days over House Speaker Jim Black’s present difficulties, which surround his questionable practice of handing out political favors concurrently with distributing blank $100 checks to legislative supporters.

A lot of people are blaming it on “the system.” A Feb. 2 editorial in The Charlotte Observer said “a system in which lobbyists raise money for legislators whose votes help or hurt their clients is open to conflicts of interests at best and outright corruption at worst.” Stopping short of calling on Black to resign as speaker, The Observer said “overall he has done little more than other legislative leaders in the past and present who have effectively wielded the power the system allows them to exercise….The problem isn’t simply the people, it’s the process.”

Many of Black’s fellow Democrats believe the issue is procedural also.

“The problem is with the system,” said state party chairman Jerry Meek to the Associated Press on Feb. 15. “Everybody understands it is.”

Claiming to have spoken to “many members of the legislature,” Meek told The Observer, “It is clear that they don’t like the current system and that they feel that the system itself, not any individual members of the legislature, is to blame for the loss of confidence in the process among some members of the public.”

Well, that’s quite a system, if it overwhelms the personal integrity of those who participate in it and forces them into unethical behavior. I didn’t know the political system was so much more powerful than other organizational structures that depend heavily on the honesty of their participants.

Take for instance our method of income tax collection. As a journalist who writes freelance articles on the side, I receive payments from publications that usually pay only $50 to $100 a pop, and they don’t accumulate enough to require those organizations to issue me (or the IRS) a 1099 form stating annual totals paid to me. In other words, the amounts are so low they don’t have to be formally identified or reported.

Nor are Internet retailers from out of state required to collect North Carolina sales tax, or to report to the state the amount of sales it has made to me. I can purchase to my heart’s desire anything I want from across-the-border vendors and the Department of Revenue wouldn’t know any better if I kept the levies for myself.

No, much of our mode of tax collection requires me to abide by the age-old honor system. However, unlike the oppressive political system that Black and his brethren find themselves stuck in, I am so glad our tax collection system has not coerced me to compromise my ethics!

But as we know, the only way for Black to keep his job as House Speaker was to collect all those funds from his fond followers, like the optometrists, video poker vendors, and chiropractors. The “system” forced him to chop the quantities into undetectable increments, so he could reward the party-switching former Rep. Michael Decker, whose vote was vital in Black’s eyes to help him retain at least part of the Speaker job.

I too, every day, am confronted with a similar dilemma. Do I try to extract financial gain for myself or for my employer, Carolina Journal, in exchange for favorable reporting about those contributors? Or do I just try to do a good, fair job? Thank God I have those options in the system I toil in! How paralyzed and helpless the Raleigh politicians must feel in theirs.

Meanwhile, the sheer audacity of the North Carolina media in their criticism of Black is disturbing. Take, for instance, the insensitive and unsympathetic editorialists at the Wilmington Star-News, who said of Black, “the N.C. House under him looks like a teenager’s bedroom and smells like rotting shrimp in a sun-baked dumpster.” Or the slightly more charitable opinion writers at the Wilson Daily Times, who said he “flagrantly used his office to peddle favorable treatment for his cronies and friends.”

Don’t they know Black has a “system” he has to work under here? No wonder he blames “negative and on-going media coverage” for his woes; they just don’t understand.

It makes you wonder where Rep. Jennifer Weiss, D-Wake, was coming from when she told The Charlotte Observer, “It troubles me that assumptions are going to be made that we all do business like that, because we don’t.”

She must hail from a planet in an entirely different “system.”

Paul Chesser is an associate editor for Carolina Journal. Contact him at [email protected].