Monday, November 12, 2007

The Nuance of Governing

Again, I find myself catching up on some weekend reading ...

I can't help but get the impression that there is some -- nay, quite a bit -- confusion over just why Paul Esslinger was investigated. Esslinger was being investigated by DOJ for violating Wisconsin state statute § 943.30. Here's what some of that statute says:

(1) Whoever, either verbally or by any written or printed communication, maliciously threatens to accuse or accuses another of any crime or offense, or threatens or commits any injury to the person, property, business, profession, calling or trade, or the profits and income of any business, profession, calling or trade of another, with intent thereby to extort money or any pecuniary advantage whatever, or with intent to compel the person so threatened to do any act against the person's will or omit to do any lawful act, is guilty of a Class H felony.

(emphasis added)

Before we start talking about the nature of the alleged misdeed, let's review what the penalty is: A class H felony carries a possible fine of up to $10,000, a potential jail sentence of up to 6 years, or both. That's nothing to shake a stick at. This is a serious allegation.

The seriousness of the allegation is further magnified by the context. The person being investigated for extortion in this case is a member of the common council and, in the eyes of at least one other member of the council, was potentially using the power of his position to threaten a subordinate with his job if that employee did not act in a certain manner. Now if I were describing this kind of scenario to residents of, say, New Jersey everyone to a person would say that sounded dangerously close to corruption.

And that is the issue here -- not good management of local government, but a gross act of corruption of public office.

I have little reason to believe that Paul Esslinger is guilty of corruption or extortion, but the only reason I can say this with confidence is because of the DOJ report (I'm having PDF issues at the moment; Cheryl Hentz has a link to the report. Here's what I've said previously on it). Nevertheless, it is not the job of the council to interpret the intent of the other members. This is why politicians tend to be a rather loquacious bunch: they operate under a need to cover their bases -- with their supporters, the electorate at large, and legally. Esslinger likely had no intent to extort the employee in question, but he appears to have made little effort to have made this clear to other people in the meeting. That's no one's fault but Esslinger's

One of the more notable claims in the Sunday community column was this: "One member's statement of intent to vote is nothing more than straight talk and, perhaps, a savvy motivational tactic."

Or it could be viewed as a threat. The only people who would be able to know the difference were the people in the meeting who were in a position to interpret the tone of Esslinger's voice, the inflection of this words and his body language -- all of which go a long way in determining intent. Several of the people in the room believed Esslinger's actions were, at a minimum, inappropriate. Given that kind of reception it is entirely reasonable so suspect that someone else in that meeting could have interpreted those same actions as being illegal. (This may also be the first time I've read anyone accusing Paul Esslinger of doing anything with any degree of "savvy.")

The column laments the decline of "straight talk" among elected officials, but this is only evidence of a political naivety on the columnist's part. Claiming as much only supposes that the author is privy to the singular political Truth that permeates local events, but there is none. Politics is almost an entirely subjective experience. There has never been a political landscape painted solely in black and white, nor will there ever be one. One man's straight talk is another man's intimidation. Professional politicians and elected officials are aware of this; "straight-shooting, no-nonsense, loud-mouthed SOB's" aren't. The former get to help lead the public. The latter, if they're lucky, maybe get their own radio show.

As I've said before, my reading of the DOJ report suggests that Esslinger did not heed the advice given to him by Warren Kraft when he went into the closed door meeting, during which he said things that called his intent into question and pushed his actions into a legal gray area. Everyone in Oshkosh wants the local government run efficiently and professionally, but good governance in Oshkosh should never come at the cost of corruption. The DOJ investigation makes sure that the city does not have to make this trade off.

This should be an object lesson for many people. Politicians rarely engage in what the public considers "straight talk" for this very reason: if it doesn't get them in trouble with the voters, it may very well get them in trouble with the law.

Now, once again, let me make this perfectly clear: Paul Esslinger has everything to lose should he continue down this path. There is no reason for Bill Castle to pay his legal bills because, just as Esslinger's supporters have defended their man, Castle was "just doing his job" as a member of the council by reporting possible crime. Esslinger may pick up some cheap political points from the his base of voters that want to see someone "stick it to the man," but this only helps Paul Esslinger, not the city of Oshkosh.

No comments: