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Onus Now on Dems for Ethical Government

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Thursday, January 08, 2009

There are those who regard politics as sport and those who see it as an adjunct to government. They frame things very differently.

When New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson exited as commerce secretary nominee, the sports fans saw a dropped ball by an otherwise flawless player, Barack Obama. The good government crowd deemed it a save.

We can all find the entertainment value in politics, but the bottom line must be what's right for the country. That means we keep our eyes on the governing part.

Obama says to expect years of trillion-dollar deficits as the United States tries to spend its way out of a deep recession or worse. Those outlays may be necessary, but they should also scare the wits out of us.

Hundreds of billions are going out the door. You don't want someone whom the FBI is investigating for possible "pay-to-play" activity heading the department that, among other things, works with businesses to enhance economic growth.

I do not prejudge Richardson, who insists on his innocence. But the concern -- whether New Mexico granted a California bond consultant $1.5 million in contracts as payback for $100,000 in contributions to Richardson's political-action committees -- is a serious one.

Did Obama's vaunted vetting team mess up by not pressing Richardson hard enough on the details? It probably did, but then so did almost everyone else in America.

The Albuquerque Journal has been beating the drum on the FBI investigation since last summer. Richardson's appealing persona and status as a high-profile (half) Latino politician seem to have deflected attention from his possible lapses.

I'd like to interrupt this column to praise the newsrooms of America. Their ranks are thinning as more people feel they can meet their duty as informed citizens by grazing on blogs or watching a clash of personalities on cable talk shows. Yes, a few Websites and television outlets do some original digging, but the great mass of consequential reporting on civic affairs still comes from the print media.

And similar claims can be made for the coverage of the current financial mess and its human impact. The lefty Huffington Post blog may blow hot-and-indignant as it swipes from others -- including its writers, few of whom it pays -- but the real lowdown on the villains and their cons have come from the pages of BusinessWeek, The Wall Street Journal and other employers of reporters.

Barron's magazine published a piece questioning Bernard Madoff's financial genius seven years ago. Imagine the pain that could have been spared had more people read it.

Back to the main story, we continue to hear that Obama committed a "blooper" in not knowing the full story on Richardson. This was a "major obstacle" to the transition and a "serious setback" for the president-elect?

It was a relief that Obama didn't try to work around the problem. He nipped it and didn't protect Richardson out of demographic considerations.

In two weeks, Democrats will be running the Washington store. They'll have a platinum opportunity to place a ton of money in the service of good government. But if they get sloppy, a multibillion-dollar scandal will come visiting soon, guaranteed.

Other high-ranking Democrats have been questioned about contributions and alleged subsequent favors, starting with New York Rep. Charles Rangel, chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee. Now is the time for Democratic leaders to read the riot act on ethics to their colleagues (Republicans should listen in).

Obama may have already taken the lead. His incomplete vetting of a Cabinet pick was a fumble -- but he recovered in the name, we pray, of good government.

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