10/03/2012 04:09 pm ET Updated Dec 03, 2012

The Scandal of Silence in D.C.

Flickr/Rory Finneren

From all the noise we hear about D.C. politics, can it be possible that our city really suffers from a "culture of silence" on the topic of political corruption? That intriguing thought was one of several theories offered for the sorry state of local public leadership at a Washington Post forum the other night (September 27). Interestingly enough, none of the current elected leaders were present, a point noted with great disdain by some of the audience, though this election season provides plenty of other candidate forums. Post Columnist Robert McCartney moderated the September 27 panel that featured D.C. Chamber of Commerce President Barbara Lang; WAMU Radio Host Kojo Nnamdi; former D.C. Councilmember Carol Schwartz; and Clinton Yates who edits the Washington Post Express and writes for The Root.

Why are so many people so disgusted with D.C. politics, and what will it take to improve the situation? Among the panelists' many theories, Yates offered the one that really resonated with me: the"culture of silence" among leadership peers in the top echelons of city government. Too many people in positions of authority seem afraid or unwilling to confront their peers about personal conduct that ranges from merely sloppy or disorganized to genuine criminal behavior.

Are powerful elected officials really afraid to call each other out on their bad behaviors? You betcha! While there may be some famous examples to the contrary, for the most part, joining the club in the Wilson Building is no different from gaining entrance to many other fraternal organizations, from student council to Augusta National to the U.S. Senate or the West Wing. Once ensconced, there are important unwritten rules of conduct, perhaps the most important of which is that a member should never, ever embarrass or call out another member. Get along, go along, and the perks of office and even greater power will eventually flow; seniority counts for everything. The old boys who run the clubs will cut freshmen off at the knees if they try to establish a new way of doing business. The new members eventually become the old guard, by which time their learned silence has become an entitlement protecting them against collegial expressions of moral concern.

Is this a fair assessment? I certainly have no "insider information" on what goes on behind closed doors in D.C. or elsewhere. But as an educator deeply concerned with the need to develop future leaders with a clear commitment to ethics, the evidence seems strong in favor of the culture of silence. The story line is too familiar: rumors abound about certain corrupt behaviors, then comes the formal investigation accompanied by public professions of shock and indignation on the part of the suspect; colleagues quietly distance themselves while business appears to go on as usual, save for the investigation coursing through the place, distracting the public and amping-up the media frenzy.

We know the cadence too well: investigation, indictment, conviction, sentencing and sorrow. Sometimes apologies, but too little, too late. Sometimes even a defiant second or third or fourth act (cf., Marion Barry).

Yes, it is true, certain members of the current D.C. Council have famously criticized their colleagues. David Catania caused an uproar with comments about Marion Barry and Harry Thomas. Tommy Wells has also been outspoken about ethics. But sometimes the public scoldings seem more like strokes for political advantage than real ethical demands.

The silence of members of the D.C. Council on endorsements of other councilmembers for election may speak volumes. But more forthright collegial confrontation of the ethical problems of colleagues would go a long way toward improving the reputation of government in D.C. In general, the public has little clear evidence that members of the Council have called each other to task, more privately and urgently, for the disgrace certain behaviors have brought upon the city.

Academics must indulge in idealism, otherwise we might give up entirely. So it is that on campuses like Trinity where the Honor Code is a central part of community life and a core teaching method, we do expect students to confront each other over their bad behaviors. We also expect students to own up to their errors, to turn themselves in if they cheat or break other rules of conduct. Of course, that's the ideal, and in practice we often must resort to more direct administrative intervention. Nevertheless, we persist in the idealistic belief that people of honor must confront those who have difficulties with ethics in order to keep the entire community strong.

Ethics legislation passed last year by the D.C. Council was supposed to strengthen the reality as well as the appearance of integrity in local governance. Subsequent to the enactment of that law, however, Council Chairman Kwame Brown was convicted of bank fraud (and is awaiting sentencing), Councilmember Harry Thomas went to jail for using money intended for a children's charity for his own pleasures, and Councilmember Michael Brown can't seem to find money donated to his campaign, among many other problems. Mayor Gray remains under investigation while people associated with his campaign face trials or head to jail.

Can we count on incumbents to shatter the "culture of silence" and clean-up the city government? Among people I hear from all the time --- from northeast neighbors to business leaders to political cognoscenti who study the city intently, the answer seems to be a resounding, "NO!" Too bad. D.C. will never bet taken seriously on Capitol Hill or around the country so long as our local government is perceived as inept, corrupt and unable to change.

The best idea I heard at the Washington Post forum came from Kojo Nnamdi. Let the people speak! If the outrage of football fans was enough to move the mighty NFL to settle the referee crisis posthaste, surely the citizens of D.C. could show at least as much anger in forcing change in the personnel and the culture of the Wilson Building.

November 6 is a momentous election day, not only for the nation, but for the District of Columbia, where numerous D.C. Council seats, including the chair, are up for election. Will the people's voice be loud enough to shatter the culture of silence that has enabled the scandalous behavior of too many D.C. officials?