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Political Ethics: Arrested Political Development -- and Forgiveness -- in Delray Beach

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You know the old saying from British poet Alexander Pope: "To err is human but to forgive is divine?"

Well, in politics, it's usually a little more complicated than that.

American politics has always been a blood sport of sorts. But in a world characterized by an unforgiving 24/7 news cycle and relentless and political pundits and bloggers, politicians more than ever are subjected to extraordinarily high standards of behavior and severe rebuke for immoral behavior.

Look at former New York Congressman Anthony Weiner. Some unrestrained Twitter flirting and he's forced to quit, his political career is shot to hell. Herman Cain, running for the GOP nomination for president, is accused of having an affair or two, and his 9-9-9 plan is deep-sixed forever.

And in many elections these days, negative campaigning serves up constant reminders of whatever moral shortcomings politicians may have. We are even subjected to "forgiveness" tours by "fallen" politicians looking to make comebacks. That's what former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford is doing now. He was forced to resign in 2009 when he cheated on his wife and was caught rendez-vousing with his mistress in Argentina.

Living up to high moral standards are not exclusive to national politics. Take the upcoming in Delray Beach.

Voters there are now being asked to decide whether to judge Delray Beach Mayor Tom Carney, whose past includes an arrest for felony hit-and-run there on March 8, 2007.

It has been alleged that Carney at the time of his arrest apparently avoided prosecution for drunk driving and covered up the severity of the incident. He left the scene of an accident that put two women in the hospital and resulted $25,000 in property damages.

It appears from a police report and a probable cause affidavit that Carney, a local attorney and at the time the powerful head of Delray Beach's Community Redevelopment Agency, had admitted to officers that he had been drinking around the time of the accident. Despite the admission, he was not given any sobriety tests by the Delray Police (whose PBA has endorsed him in this election) and was charged instead, with a felony leaving the scene charge.

And there's more: Originally charged with a felony hit and run with injuries, the charge was reduced to a misdemeanor hit and run with property damage. Months later, Carney cut a deal with prosecutors to avoid jail time with a pre-trial intervention, deferred prosecution, community service and a fine. Florida prosecutors use deferred prosecution to allow first-time offenders or persons not likely to violate in the future a chance to resolve their case and walk away with a clean record, no conviction.

Remember where this took place. In Palm Beach County, which is nicknamed "Corruption County," where such special treatment for powerful people was not uncommon at the time of Carney's arrest. Deferential treatment and a blind eye for dirty politicians was business as usual where pay to play politics and nepotism and cronyism were not subject to prosecution there.

That has since changed -- maybe. After a number of powerful Palm Beach politicians were convicted and sent to prison by federal prosecutors after Carney's arrest, a special ethics commission and inspector general's office were created as key provisions in major ethic reforms in the county.

Carney, who is actually in his first contested race after running unopposed for council and then being appointed to serve out the term of his predecessor who ran for higher office, thinks that bring up this arrest is unfair:

"This is a last-minute, below-the-belt, personal and misleading attack. This is an old incident and has never been brought up in the many years I have served on the boards, committees and on the City Commission. It could have been brought up a long time ago, but is now being brought up five days before an election. I have been on the Commission two years and now serve as mayor. This issue has nothing to do with my ability to do the job or the issues important to our community. In my opinion, personal attacks like this have nothing to do with a mayor's race."

So voters in Delray Beach this March must decide in the upcoming election whether Carney's arrest and lack of conviction in 2007 not only reflects on his moral turpitude as an election official, but in addition whether he got a special break that the average voter would not have received in similar circumstances. As it happens, the Palm Beach County Board of County Commissioners has declared March "Palm Beach County Ethics Awareness Month." Next week's election in Delray Beach will show whether voters there will take the 18th century poet's words to heart.

As they ponder ethics this month, will they follow the divine path and forgive their interim mayor? Or will they hold Carney to the same high ethical standards demanded these days from better-known politicians?