Monday, August 1, 2011

Politics today: What's sex have to do with it?

This op-ed was originally published by the Los Angeles Daily Journal.

By Professor Laurie L. Levenson and Laura LeFeuvre, 2L

One need only open the newspaper to see the flurry of recent charges against politicians throughout the country. While some of these charges involve professional malfeasance, others derive from sexual misconduct by the official. Of course, this certainly is not the first generation of politicians to be less than noble in their private lives. Sex scandals date back to the time of our Founding Fathers. Yet, there does seem to be something different about how we are responding to the recent sexual escapades of today's politicians. Not only have their sexual exploits forced them out of political office, but increasingly, they now face criminal charges.

America may have started as a Puritan nation, but our political leaders have been far from pure. DNA evidence indicates that Thomas Jefferson had an affair with and fathered the children of his slave Sally Hemings. Alexander Hamilton had an affair with Maria Reynolds and paid her husband hush money to continue the affair. Even George Washington supposedly wrote love letters to a certain Sally Fairfax, a friend of Martha Washington. While well known, their scandalous behavior has become but a footnote in the chronicles of American history.

By comparison, today's politicians find themselves facing more than public scorn. They also face criminal indictments. Former Senator and one-time presidential candidate John Edwards has been charged in a six-count indictment with conspiracy, illegal campaign contributions and false statements relating to his sexual escapades. The indictment alleges that Johnny Reid Edwards chose to "(f)alsify, conceal, and cover up by trick, scheme, and device" his extramarital affair and illegitimate child. In particular: "The purpose of the conspiracy was to protect and advance Edwards' candidacy for President of the United States by secretly obtaining and using hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions from Person C and Person D, well in excess of the Election Act's limit, to conceal Edwards' extramarital affair with Person B and Person B's pregnancy with his child. Edwards knew that public revelation of the affair and pregnancy would destroy his candidacy by, among other things, undermining Edwards' presentation of himself as a family man and by forcing his campaign to divert personnel and resources away from other campaign activities to respond to criticism and media scrutiny regarding the affair and pregnancy."

Similarly, three years ago, former Idaho Senator Larry Edwin Craig found himself arrested for lewd conduct in a men's restroom at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport. He peeped into adjoining stalls and made customary signals for soliciting sex. Unlike the actions of our nation's founders, Craig's conduct was not considered a private matter. He eventually pled guilty to the lesser charges of interference with privacy and disorderly conduct.

That same year, U.S. District Judge Samuel B. Kent from the Southern District of Texas was indicted on three counts of abusive sexual contact and attempted aggravated sexual abuse. On two occasions, Kent allegedly sexually molested a court clerk employed in his courtroom -- touching her groin, breast, inner thigh and buttocks without her consent. During one incident, Kent also attempted to force the employee to perform oral sex on him without her consent. His misconduct was not swept under the rug. He was criminally charged and eventually pled guilty to obstruction of justice, resulting in a 33-month prison sentence.

The list continues. Mayor Gary Becker of Racine, Wis., was indicted in 2009 after a sex sting when he was caught attempting to arrange a sexual encounter with an underage girl via the Internet. Becker's six-count indictment included charges for attempted sexual assault of a child under 16 years of age, child enticement, possessing child pornography, using a computer to facilitate a child sex crime, attempting to expose a child to harmful material and official misconduct. Becker was eventually sentenced to three years in prison.

Politicians on both sides of the aisle have found themselves in hot water. Ted Alvin Klaudt, a Republican member of the South Dakota House of Representatives, was charged in 2007 with eight counts of rape, two counts of sexual exploitation of a minor, two counts of witness tampering, sexual contact with a person under 16, and stalking. Klaudt had allegedly tricked his two foster daughters into believing they should sell their eggs. He then allegedly insisted on "fertility exams" of their breasts, vaginas and ovaries by using his fingers, a speculum, and a dildo. Klaudt was convicted and sentenced to 44 years in prison.

Finally, and most recently, Oregon Congressman David Wu, a graduate of Yale Law School, was forced to resign because of allegations that he engaged in unwanted sexual conduct with the 18-year-old daughter of a long-time family friend and campaign donor. It remains to be seen whether he too will face criminal charges.

We may no longer be surprised by bad behavior by politicians, but the repercussions have become more serious. In the post-Watergate era, the public is less forgiving of misconduct by public officials. Politicians can no longer assume they are above the justice system because of their connections or their celebrity. Their exploits will not only be fodder for political rivals, but may result in serious legal sanctions.

Public opinion polls echo that sentiment. In 2007, a CNN/Opinion Research Poll asked whether then-Senator Larry Craig should resign because of the misdemeanor charge of disorderly conduct for allegedly making sexual advances to an undercover police officer. More than 67 percent of the people believed he should. Likewise, the public was very vocal about President Bill Clinton's conduct. A CBS News/New York Times poll at the time indicated that 54 percent of 997 adults answered "yes" to the question: "Do you think Congress should censure President Clinton - that is, should Congress vote to publicly reprimand President Clinton for what he has done?"

One might ask, "What's sex have to do with it?" If a politician can do his or her job, why should the public care about his private behavior? The answer appears to be that we do believe that one's lack of integrity, especially the willingness to engage in illegal behavior in his private affairs, does reflect on his competency to represent the American public. As former Congressman Anthony Wiener and New York Attorney General Elliot Spitzer can attest, we no longer compartmentalize private behavior. A key aspect of public officials' work is to connect with their constituents, interact with them, and generate respect and credibility for their initiatives. A politician who cannot be trusted is likely to fail in this essential duty.

No one expects politicians to be saints, but is it too much to ask that they not be criminals or sexual predators? Recent events show that the public's answer is a resounding, "no."

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