No Comment — September 19, 2008, 1:43 pm

Public Integrity, Redefined

Last week the public learned through an inspector general’s report about the antics of a group of Bush political appointees in senior positions at the Department of the Interior. One of the subjects, Gregory W. Smith, managed relations with the oil and gas industry and was found to have taken gifts from clients. The IG report also detailed Smith’s illicit sexual relationships with subordinates, his purchases of cocaine at his office, and improper outside consulting deals that allowed him to earn more than $30,000. The IG report suggested a pattern in which bribes and sexual favors were used to help secure valuable government contracts.

So the ever vigilant Public Integrity Section at the Bush Justice Department is right on top of this matter, prosecuting the wrongdoers to uphold standards of public decency, right? Wrong. To the shock of the Inspector General, the Justice Department has decided that it will take no action in the case involving Smith and another senior political appointee at Interior. Why? The Justice Department believes it doesn’t owe the public any explanations, and it has the power to prosecute or not to prosecute as it sees fit.

Similar good news is arriving at the doorstep of former Florida Representative Mark Foley, whose sexually suggestive text messages to House pages stirred a national sensation in 2006. Foley refused to waive his legislative privilege, making it very difficult for law enforcement officials to probe much further into the matter. Now the Associated Press reports that the Justice Department appears prepared to let the Foley matter drop without criminal prosecution. If you’re trying to understand why the Justice Department under Bush has reached a modern low water level in public confidence, look no further.

Or perhaps consider some of the public integrity cases which are being prosecuted, at a cost of millions in taxpayer dollars. Graft, cocaine and sexual favors at Interior is considered nothing serious. Improper dealings with minors and the texting of sexually explicit solicitations apparently can just be overlooked. Compare this with Sue Schmitz, the Alabama legislator who allegedly underperformed on a series of consultancy contracts, and was sued for fraud as a result: the prosecution’s thundering condemnation was that she kept bad time records on a contract to promote the interests of a secondary education contractor at the legislature. Schmitz’s first trial, at a cost to the public of some $2 million, produced no conviction, so now the Justice Department indicates it will try a second time—rushing to get the prosecution done before regime change in Washington brings an end to the charade.

Or consider the case of Pittsburgh’s Cyril Wecht, also prosecuted in a high-profile case on a series of bizarre petty offenses. That prosecution also failed. In the Wecht case as well, Justice insists on a new trial, and is racing to complete it before the coach turns into a pumpkin on January 20. In the Wecht case, the appeals court has just removed the George W. Bush-appointed judge who presided over the case and whose consistently less-than-even-handed management of the case was the subject of widespread comment.

So how to differentiate the decision not to prosecute the coke-snorting, party-animal Bush appointees at Interior and the party-animal Congressman chasing after young pages from the 63-year-old school teacher in Alabama who kept bad time records and the prominent Pittsburgh medical examiner who had the indecency to make personal use of his fax machine? The latter two are Democrats.

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Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

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Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

In the exam room, she perched on the table with her feet crossed at the ankles, her blond hair brushing the back of her pink hospital gown. “I don’t know what’s available for me here,” she told her doctor, Katherine Degen, who sat facing her on a stool. “I figured nothing.”

 Some names and identifying details have been changed. 

“Big, fat zero, unfortunately,” Degen said, making a 0 with her fingers. The last doctor who provided abortions in Rapid City retired in 1986, three years before Ashley was born.

The baby was due in November, when Ashley, who was a nurse, hoped to be enrolled in a graduate program to become a nurse practitioner. Getting pregnant as a teenager had forced her to put that dream on hold, but she had thought that she was finally ready; she had even submitted her application shortly before the March 15 deadline. For the first time in her adult life, Ashley felt as if her plans were coming together. Then she missed her period.

It would be too difficult to attend school as a single mother of two, Ashley knew. She had made an appointment for three weeks from now at the nearest abortion clinic, in Billings, Montana, 318 miles away. But just a week and a half ago, her husband had said he wanted to get back together and offered to raise the child as his own. Was it a sign that she was meant to continue the pregnancy? As a rule, Ashley approached her problems with resolve. She was capable and tough; she liked shooting guns and lifting weights. She kept track of her stats and checked off her goals as she achieved them one by one. Yet the dilemma before her had shaken her confidence. She leaned back and turned to watch the ultrasound screen. The black-and-white image danced. A sharp, fast thumping emerged from the machine. As Degen removed the wand, Ashley wiped the corner of her eye.

Artwork by Imre Kinszki © Imre Kinszki Estate
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Ashley arrived for her prenatal appointment at Black Hills Obstetrics and Gynecology, in Rapid City, South Dakota, wearing a black zip-up hoodie and Converse sneakers.1 To explain her absence from work that morning — a Tuesday in April 2015 — she had told a co-worker that she was having “female issues.” She was twenty-five years old and eight weeks pregnant. She had been separated from her husband, with whom she had a five-year-old son, for the better part of a year. The guy who’d gotten her pregnant was someone she’d met at the gym, and he’d made it abundantly clear that he wanted nothing more to do with her. Ashley found herself hoping that the doctor would discover some kind of fetal defect, so that her decision would be easier. She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. “Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.”

In the exam room, she perched on the table with her feet crossed at the ankles, her blond hair brushing the back of her pink hospital gown. “I don’t know what’s available for me here,” she told her doctor, Katherine Degen, who sat facing her on a stool. “I figured nothing.”

 Some names and identifying details have been changed. 

“Big, fat zero, unfortunately,” Degen said, making a 0 with her fingers. The last doctor who provided abortions in Rapid City retired in 1986, three years before Ashley was born.

The baby was due in November, when Ashley, who was a nurse, hoped to be enrolled in a graduate program to become a nurse practitioner. Getting pregnant as a teenager had forced her to put that dream on hold, but she had thought that she was finally ready; she had even submitted her application shortly before the March 15 deadline. For the first time in her adult life, Ashley felt as if her plans were coming together. Then she missed her period.

It would be too difficult to attend school as a single mother of two, Ashley knew. She had made an appointment for three weeks from now at the nearest abortion clinic, in Billings, Montana, 318 miles away. But just a week and a half ago, her husband had said he wanted to get back together and offered to raise the child as his own. Was it a sign that she was meant to continue the pregnancy? As a rule, Ashley approached her problems with resolve. She was capable and tough; she liked shooting guns and lifting weights. She kept track of her stats and checked off her goals as she achieved them one by one. Yet the dilemma before her had shaken her confidence. She leaned back and turned to watch the ultrasound screen. The black-and-white image danced. A sharp, fast thumping emerged from the machine. As Degen removed the wand, Ashley wiped the corner of her eye.

Photograph (detail) by Balazs Gardi
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"She glanced across the waiting room at a television playing a birth-control ad and laughed darkly. 'Jesus, Lord, it would be so nice if someone just pushed me down a flight of stairs.'"
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