Officials must try to avoid even the appearance of wrong.
Let’s assume County Councilman Paul Moss and Sheriff Ken Fries did nothing unethical in the now-infamous incident occupying so much of the Allen County Ethics Commission’s attention. They have both behaved honorably as public servants throughout their careers, and there is no reason to suppose they did anything less this time.
But it also must be said that they both exercised very poor judgment. When county officers stopped his car and began an inquiry based on the smell of alcohol in his car, he should not have called Fries, even if it was just to ask him to “expedite” a blood-alcohol test, not help him get out of it. When a public official calls the chief law enforcement officer from a traffic stop, that creates the impression is seeking something not available to the ordinary citizen.
And, having received the call, Fries should not have spoken to any of the officers on the scene, even if it was just to tell them to do what they had to do, not direct them to do Moss any favors. He should have wished Moss well and gone on about his business. The police officers could have used better judgment, too. When Moss refused a field sobriety test, making sure he took a blood test should have been their top priority of the night. They didn’t think letting a councilman off with no test and even giving him a ride home might raise a few eyebrows?
The actions taken that night by all involved created the suspicion – which many will be happy to entertain – that one public official threw his weight around and was given a special favor by another one. And it’s a suspicion that will linger, because it will be almost impossible to learn what was really said by whom to whom that night. Consider the recently released statements from the officers involved. They don’t contradict the Moss and Fries version of events, but they don’t shed much light on the situation, either.
The ethics commission isn’t likely to resolve this to anyone’s satisfaction. But members deserve credit for at least ensuring a full public airing of the situation. If the hearings do nothing else, that should pound it into public officials’ heads that even the appearance of wrongdoing should be a concern to them and they should always beware of the power they have and how it can be abused.
Public trust is a fragile commodity, and without it fair and effective government is made much harder than it should be.