Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Abuse of power

How often do we hear someone abusing his or her power?

Just this last Christmas in the Philippines, a young woman witnessed a town mayor and his bodyguards beat up her 56-year old father and 14-year old brother who were playing a round of golf. While the beating was taking place, the mayor’s father, the current Secretary of the Department of Agrarian Reform in Philippine President Gloria Arroyo’s cabinet and head of the government’s panel in peace negotiations with the insurgents in Southern Philippines, did nothing but watch, implicitly condoning the violence. All because of a misunderstanding of golf’s rules in which etiquette is of paramount importance and conformity to the rules is mandatory.

The woman’s father and her younger brother were playing ahead of the mayor and his friends (later identified as his bodyguards) who reportedly violated golf’s long-standing rule of allowing the flight ahead to play the next hole. But the mayor and his bodyguards jumped the order of play; this annoyed the woman’s father who then approached the mayor to enforce his right to play first. “Don’t you know who I am?” the mayor barked back, turning the meeting into a nasty physical encounter. Naturally, the mayor and his burly bodyguards were too much for the father and son to handle, so they ended up not only losing their right to play the hole but being beaten like pulp into the ground as well.

In October 2008, an investigation initiated by the Alaska legislature found Gov. Sarah Palin has abused her power when she fired her public safety commissioner, a scandal that haunted her vice presidential bid. It was believed that Gov. Palin dismissed her safety commissioner for refusing to take action against a state trooper under him who had been involved in a messy divorce with the governor’s sister.

Sometime in August 2007, Republican Sen. Larry Craig was allegedly caught doing something gross and sleazy in a men’s bathroom in Minneapolis. The senator was said to have made overtures to a man he thought could be gay by tapping his toes a few times and swiping his hand beneath the bathroom stall divider. Little did the senator know that a police officer was there solely to catch homosexual men soliciting others for consensual sex. During an interview with the press, Sen. Craig denied he was gay.

In Canada, Prime Minister Stephen Harper almost lost his grip of his minority Conservative government when opposition parties united to form a coalition to force Parliament to a vote of confidence, and thus bring down the government. By resorting to a seldom-used parliamentary prerogative, Harper asked Canada’s Governor General to prorogue (or suspend) Parliament until the last week of January 2009, thus affording him and his cabinet with the opportunity to revise their political strategy and to offer a budget that will include an economic stimulus to help turn around the country’s failing economy, and in the process, dampen the opposition’s plan to bring his government down.

But this did not prevent Harper from appointing unelected senators before the House of Commons reconvenes, angering the opposition that the Prime Minister was abusing his power of stacking the Senate when he does not have the confidence of the House of Commons, or the full legitimacy to move forward. Apparently, Harper was afraid that a coalition of opposition parties which was not elected to be the government would appoint the senators instead.

Last December 9, 2008, Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich was arrested for trying to sell president-elect Barack Obama’s Senate seat to the highest bidder. Federal authorities have put a wire tap on the governor’s phones whom they suspected was already canvassing bidders for Obama’s seat even before the first votes were counted in the last presidential election. The Illinois governor has not been formally indicted on any charges and has been signing bills and conducting other state business despite pleas for him to resign.

Then on December 30, 2008, Gov. Blagojevich appointed Roland Burris, a former state attorney-general to represent Illinois despite warning from nearly everyone not to do so after the governor was heard on tape contemplating the sale of the seat for personal gain. But under Illinois law, the governor believes he has every legal right to do so. He’s still the governor of Illinois and has not been impeached or convicted of the corruption charges against him. Meanwhile, the Majority leader of the Senate, Sen. Harry Reid and Washington democrats are refusing to seat Mr. Burris, never mind their lack of authority to do so.

Obviously, the Philippine town mayor and his cabinet-ranking father may rightfully be censured for abusing their positions in office. Breaking one of golf’s hallowed rules may be forgiven, but the town mayor and his golf buddies should be charged with assault for beating up the old man and his young son.

As for the cabinet secretary, for doing nothing but watch and ignore the criminal behaviour of his son and bodyguards, he does not deserve to stay a minute longer in his lofty position in government for utter lack of sound judgment, and for disregard for human values and morality. As head of the government panel that is negotiating for peace between the government and rebel Moslems in the South, it was a very dismal image of a warlord that the secretary projected on the golf course where all he had to contend with were golf clubs and umbrellas, and the massive fists of the mayor’s bodyguards. If he could not maintain peace between his family and others on a golf course where gentlemen usually relate in a friendly game, how could we expect the secretary to broker peace between heavily armed groups at war? But the real irony in this incident is the secretary’s boss who has remained mum on the issue. Yet, another story of the power to abuse.

Gov. Sarah Palin lost in the recent U.S. presidential elections, so the allegation of abuse of power as governor of Alaska will eventually be ignored as not being newsworthy anymore. The Alaska governor has maintained that she did nothing unlawful or unethical, that it was “important for a governor to take on the responsibility of making sure that everybody in her cabinet is in the right place at the right time to best serve the public.”

The same can be said of Sen. Larry Craig’s misadventure in a Minneapolis public washroom. Sen. Craig’s political career is probably over. But did he abuse his power as a senator of Congress or was it the media’s, who pick and choose whose privacy they will violate on a partisan basis?

Prime Minister Stephen Harper may have saved his minority government and spared Canada of another costly general election, which may also have tamed Harper’s arrogance and chastised him as well. Instead of ruling under a coalition, the Liberals have chosen their new leader and probably would be aiming their sights at a general election after two years of minority Conservative government. How about the new senators appointed by Harper? They will not impact much in terms of senate reform since the majority of senators are still Liberal Party appointments.

Did Gov. Rod Blagojevich of Illinois abuse his power in ignoring the pleas for him to resign and appointing a replacement for president-elect Obama’s Senate seat? The governor said that the Illinois public deserves its full measure of representation in Washington. He appointed Roland Burris, a former state attorney general who is untainted by the charges against the governor.

Apparently, the federal prosecutor in this case, Patrick Fitzgerald, already knew that Gov. Blagojevich has been peddling the senate seat even prior to the election of Barack Obama to the U.S. presidency. So, what stopped Fitzgerald from arresting the governor if he had substantial evidence that Gov. Blagojevich had put a “for sale” sign on the Senate seat? Had Fitzgerald done so, of course, it could have damaged Obama. But the federal prosecutor made it clear that nothing ties Obama directly to the Blagojevich scheme.

Under existing Illinois law, the governor has final authority to appoint someone to fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat which Gov. Blagojevich actually did when he appointed Mr. Burris, who is not by any stretch linked to the governor’s indiscretion. Sen. Harry Reid, the Majority Floor Leader, does not want to seat Mr. Burris because his appointment was made by a tainted governor. But there is nothing in the law that says a Senator must have not been appointed by an embarrassing Illinois Governor caught on tape selling a senate vacant seat.

If Sen. Reid wants to banish Mr. Burris, he must first seat him and then persuade two-thirds of the Senate to expel him. But that would create more turmoil among Democrats by expelling an African-American Democrat whose only offence has been to accept an appointment to serve. It would be politically difficult for Senate Democrats to deny Mr. Burris the seat because he would be the lone African-American in the chamber.

Sen. Reid has insisted that the best route to filling Obama’s vacant seat would be for Gov. Blagojevich to step down because of the federal corruption charges against him and let his Lieutenant Governor take over, who then could appoint Mr. Burris or anyone else to the post.

The Blagojevich scandal raises not only the question whether a seating governor accused of criminal offence and who faces impeachment from his State Legislature can still appoint someone to a Senate seat, but rather the spectre of wiretapping into telephone calls, a practice that has become so common and so pervasive in the United States today. Warrantless wiretapping is already allowed in national security cases, but because of new technologies, the greatest assault on the privacy of American citizens is undergoing an even more rapid expansion of data collection, storage, tracking, and mining, creating what the American Civil Liberties Union calls a new “surveillance society” that is unlike anything Americans have seen before.

Who abuses whom and how are not the relevant questions to ask anymore. Sometimes the characters involved are both guilty and innocent of abuse of power depending on which side of the fence you are standing. How they abuse their power also seems so common that the outcome has become so predictable. Perhaps, the best option is to simply keep to the minimum the powers that we delegate to government officials. In this way, any abuse of such powers will be so insignificant as to do harm to anyone.

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