Blame the messenger

The reaction is as predictable as sunrise. The moment something appears in the news media that reflects anything but favorably on any politician, the blame is always that of the media.

I've seen it in every community I've ever had the privilege to practice this profession in. The headlines hint at something questionable in the actions and/or background of an elected official and the return fire is always aimed at the messenger and most usually completely off the point.

It's been that way in this nation from John Adams, the first vaunted political figure in our history to have a much ballyhooed public relations problem with the press, to Bill Clinton.

It's never their fault; it's the doing of the lowly reporter who, in the course of doing their thankless and usually underpaid jobs, happened to stumble across the embarrassing item in the first place.

Dubuque's recent brush between a political power base and the press -- in this case the Telegraph Herald -- involves revelations that Mayor Terry Duggan has invested in a hotel project intricately involved in the America's River project on the city's riverfront.

It seems that there is no dispute about the basic facts; Mayor Duggan was approached and agreed to invest $12,000 for himself and his wife in the proposed $23 million Ice Harbor hotel and indoor water park, which will be a key part of the $188 million project that received a $40 million boost from the state's highly touted Vision Iowa program.

In fact Dubuque's Vision Iowa grant was the first actually voted by that board and has been said to be the model for the new state program aimed at funding local community projects in search of economic and recreational revitalization.

However, the rub in the tale comes when one considers that Duggan spent much of his waking hours and effort over the months leading up to that $40 million award, pitching the entire America's River project to the Vision Iowa board.

Then, he initially finalized, with his own signature, a city lease agreement with the overall developer seeking to build the same hotel on a parcel of city property.

But we have all been assured that the entire transaction, from start to $12,000 finish, is perfectly legal.

A word here about the concept of legality. I have discovered, in 30 years in this business, that there are almost as many different opinions on legality as there are attorneys in this great land of ours. In fact, I suggest that there is a much greater chance of finding an attorney who will tell you that a $12,000 investment in a quasi-public/private project by an elected official is legal than there are such sweet $12,000 opportunities out there to invest in.

That's why there are, in almost all court proceedings, at least one lawyer, and quite often more, representing all sides of each and every question.

The real matter for the citizens of this community to consider, especially those who don't have the $12,000 to invest in the first place, should be ''is the mayor's action in this matter ethical?''

And, I believe that most reasonable individuals will agree that the answer is a resounding ''no!''

Now, certainly, without America's River and the state's $40 million infusion of cash, few, if any, real-estate developers, regardless of their relationship to Mayor Duggan -- and these individuals have quite a long relationship with his honor the mayor -- would be interested in building a $23 million hotel in Ice Harbor.

And Mayor Duggan must have had at least some twinge of conscience himself because once he was approached to make the $12,000 investment he tells us that he went immediately to the city attorney for an opinion.

It's also interesting to note here that the attorney approached about this matter, is, in a very real sense, a city employee, which does little to ease any of the ethical questions some have about this entire matter.

And, to Duggan's admitted surprise, the city attorney offered an opinion that it was indeed legal for the mayor to invest in the project.

Since we've already addressed the rather shaky aspects of those things that are legal and illegal in such instances, let us stay for a moment with the vast differences between the terms ''legal'' and ''ethical?''

Just because something is ''legal'' does not mean it is ''ethical.'' It is ethical, or at least should be, for an elected official to, at all times, avoid even the appearance of a ''conflict of interest.'' Quite obviously those concerns do not seem to have arisen in this instance, at least not from the mayor's standpoint.

However, I would submit that the very fact that the mayor felt compelled to ask for a legal opinion in the first place was a very strong indication that nothing that followed, regardless of its legality, was ethical.

Even granting the fact that Mayor Duggan is reported to have strictly avoided taking part in any of the votes and/or discussions of the America's River project, his investment in a partnership for the hotel in Ice Harbor was and is unethical.

Ethical public servants do not search out legal loopholes to allow questionable investments in public/private endeavors.

Certainly the mayor's $12,000 was not and is not the make and break asset of his portfolio. He could have just as easily told those who approached him ''Thanks, but no thanks, the citizens of Dubuque might see this as at least the appearance of a conflict of interest.''

On a much larger scale, this matter could be said to lend somewhat of a tainting influence to the overall Vision Iowa program itself.

In several communities in the state, officials were forced to go to their voters to seek bond authority in an effort to finance the local match of a given Vision Iowa project.

What would be the effect on those voters and bond issues if they knew that in at least one instance -- in Dubuque -- Vision Iowa is seen as an unavoidable investment opportunity for elected officials. Certainly, word of the mayor's investment raised at least some eyebrows in other Vision Iowa communities.

Adding to the questionable pallor of this entire situation is the fact that the reporter who broke the story went through hell after filing her piece. She was treated like a non-person at city hall and verbally abused by members of the city administration throughout the weeks following the publication of her story.

However, all the questions and lack of respect for one of its employees did not keep the Telegraph Herald from endorsing the same mayor in the recent election campaign or allow the same publication to run this particular column.

Uploaded to The Zephyr Online November 20, 2001

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