Friday, December 12, 2008


Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich has been indicted by the federal government on charges that include scheming to sell President-Elect Obama's Senate seat for money or other personal gain. Based on published comments and demands that Governor Blagojevich resign, one would think that indictment and conviction mean the same thing. They do not, and Americans should act like we know they are not the same thing.

An indictment is nothing more than an accusation by a prosecutor that the person named in the indictment has engaged in criminal conduct. In the case of Governor Blagojevich, U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald has leveled the accusations. Governor Blagojevich has been arrested and released on his own recognizance pending the outcome of the case. No persons have been summoned for jury duty in this case, let alone selected to hear the evidence. No trial date has been set. No witnesses have been subpoenaed for trial. Nothing has been introduced into evidence. No verdict has been returned.

Governor Blagojevich is not guilty. In the United States, a criminal finding of guilt requires one of three things. The accused person must either be tried by a jury which returns a verdict of guilt, must be tried by a judge who renders a finding of guilt, or must make a voluntary and intelligent plea of guilt which is then accepted by a judge. Governor Blagojevich has not been found guilty. He has not made a guilty plea nor been convicted by a jury or judge. Governor Blagojevich is not guilty.

One need not hold a law degree to know that indictment is not conviction, no matter how incriminating the circumstances may be surrounding the indictment. Every accused person is presumed innocent in every criminal case. There is no politician exception, no Illinois exception, and no exception for indictments that level charges of influence peddling. Although the airwaves have been cluttered by calls for Governor Blagojevich to resign from public officials ranging from President-Elect Obama to leaders in the U.S. Senate, there is no requirement that an indicted person resign. Remember, an indicted person is presumed innocent.

The Blagojevich matter is newsworthy because public officials should not seek private gain in exchange for public policy actions and should refrain from attempts to do so. However, the only news is that Blagojevich has been indicted based on secret recordings of statements that he allegedly made at various times.

Whether those statements amount to proof of any crime will be determined according to the rigorous process involved in criminal trials. Will the recorded statements be admitted into evidence? Will there be other evidence that mitigates Blagojevich, or undercuts the credibility of the proof against him? What the evidence will be and whether jurors will believe it are open questions, among others.

While U.S. Attorney Fitzgerald believes that Governor Blagojevich is guilty, his belief is not evidence. Fitzgerald's comments about the case are not evidence now and will not amount to evidence even when (and if) there is a trial. Governor Blagojevich is under no obligation to prove his innocence. U.S. Attorney Fitzgerald must prove every element of every charge beyond a reasonable doubt before Blagojevich can be found guilty. Fitzgerald may believe that he has a strong case. He is entitled to say that he has a strong case. Neither his views about the case nor his comments make a case against Blagojevich. As the saying goes, talk is cheap.

Meanwhile, Fitzgerald and the rest of us have no right to behave as if suspicion equals guilt. No matter who holds the suspicion, or who is suspected, criminal guilt is always determined by proof. Unless and until that happens, Blagojevich should be treated like an innocent person who has been charged with political corruption.

Political corruption is wrong. The same is true for treating accused persons as if we do not believe our talk about the presumption of innocence. If we believe that suspicions and accusations amount to guilt, we will either stop holding trials or make a mockery of the trials we conduct. If we believe that accusations do not take the place of trial proof, we will stop treating accused persons as if they have been convicted.

Governor Blagojevich is not guilty. He is presumed innocent of all the charges. Let us respect his right to a fair trial by acting like we understand what this means.

Saturday, December 6, 2008


U.S. political and economic leaders recently admitted that that the national economy is in recession and that the recession began as long ago as December 2007. Their admission merely confirms what many Americans have long known, or at least suspected. It is revealing that the financial and political leaders responsible for forecasting and managing economic health are among the last to recognize, or at least admit, what has been obvious to the rest of us. After all, the ability to assess current realities and develop strategies for action based on estimates of likely events has long been recognized as a fundamental leadership skill.

No leader is foolproof or infallible, so a certain risk of error is always present even with the most careful planning. However, leaders are expected to be able to evaluate facts, relate existing facts to historical lessons, calculate sensible contingency plans, and implement those plans based on changing situations. Those skills are fundamental for every leader in all situations. Indeed, as leaders are entrusted with more responsibility and power, they are expected to possess and demonstrate these fundamental skills with greater ability. And, when the occasional crisis occurs, leaders must manage the crisis with competence.

Competent crisis leadership includes the ability to avoid panic thinking and behavior. Granted, it is easier to talk about avoiding panic than to develop rational responses during crisis situations. On the other hand, competent leadership is never about doing what is easy. Panic is not a competent response to a crisis, however overwhelming the crisis may seem or actually be. During a crisis, leaders should follow the counsel that is most often found in the Hebrew-Christian religious texts: fear not.

Competent crisis leadership also involves identifying and protecting people and other resources that are more vulnerable because of the crisis. The current economic crisis will affect some persons and sectors of the nation more than others because of their special vulnerability. Leaders who do not or cannot recognize that reality, or who somehow cannot or will not create and implement sensible plans in view of it, are not ethically competent no matter what their other strengths may be.

That ethical component of crisis leadership has been brought into sharp focus by the way political leaders rushed to approve legislation that provides hundreds of billions of dollars to protect the investment banking industry. Meanwhile, homeowners facing foreclosure, automobile manufacturers and their workers, suppliers, pensioners, and other apparently less-influential but more vulnerable actors are still waiting to be rescued. Some political leaders and other commentators have openly questioned whether any federal relief should be provided to them.

The reluctant and, in some instances aggressive, refusal to protect such obviously vulnerable persons brings Hurricane Katrina to mind. That unpleasant memory is more painful, if not bitter, because as with Katrina, some of the political leaders who question whether the federal government should rescue vulnerable people in the current crisis boasted about their belief in "moral values" when they were seeking political office. Those leaders appear to have forgotten that concern for and protection of people in vulnerable situations is a basic principle common to all respected moral and religious systems.

The present economic crisis is also revealing about moral leadership in the religious and journalism professions. The news media pay close attention to the supposed political influence of religious conservatives in affecting election outcomes. Yet, hardly anything has been reported about how religious leaders are responding to the economic crisis, or even their present failure to be as forceful on behalf of the vulnerable as they have tried to be when working to influence elections and boost the political clout of their religious constituencies.

It has been amazing, but certainly not amusing, to observe the silence of religious leaders and organizations compared to their almost deafening rhetoric at other times. Where is the prophetic spirit of Martin King, Amos, Micah, Jeremiah, Isaiah, and Jesus? What is the evidence that current U.S. religious leaders, of all political views, are advocating ethical public policies by political leaders? When will U.S. religious leaders remind political leaders about their moral duty to protect poor, weak, elderly, immigrant, young, and other vulnerable people during this crisis?

The recession offers several revelations about the state of political, economic, journalistic, and moral leadership in American society. These revelations are not flattering. It remains to be seen what lessons current and emerging American leaders will draw from them. There is much to be learned.