Michael Hooks Jr.'s lawyers may argue that his guilty plea last week wasn't part of Operation Tennessee Waltz, but to the average Memphian, that's semantics. Hooks may not have profited from his position on the Memphis City School Board, but he was an elected official, just like the politicians caught in the 2005 Tennessee Waltz sting.
In this atmosphere of uncovered corruption, Christian Brothers University will host a panel discussion this week on ethics in government. In addition to U.S. attorney David Kustoff and the FBI's My Harrison, Shelby County commissioner David Lillard will be a panelist. The Flyer recently met up with Lillard at his downtown law firm to discuss how elected officials should act. — Yann Ranaivo
Flyer: Do you think elected officials have a duty to set an example for their community?
Lillard: They have a duty to engage in honesty in their dealings with public issues regarding any special interest. In the context of ethics, you do not only have the need to set policy, you also [need to maintain your public image]. Other county employees are doing that, but we've seen cases in the past where county employees do unethical things. For instance, we've had a woman who embezzled money from the Med.
Do you think it is your job to point out wrongdoing among other elected officials?
In a situation where a commissioner becomes aware of clear wrongdoing, like the stealing of county property, then, yes, there is a duty to involve proper enforcement authorities. But there is more than one type. One is when they are clearly violating the law. Those are clear, everyday situations.
The second one includes things that are not violations to the law but are not good ethically, such as taking premier sporting-event tickets for free when someone has duties to the county.
Do you think there should be stricter conduct codes for public officials?
My personal policy is I don't accept free lunches, dinners, or gratuities from anybody. If I do have a private meeting with someone, I pay for my lunch and they pay for theirs.
Anyone wishing to do business with county government cannot give gratuities of any type to officials or gratuities that are not allowed under the policy. If an employee takes kickbacks from someone else, I don't know how you would detect that.
[Former county commissioner Michael] Hooks Sr. was accused of taking money. No one would have ever known about that except for the government investigators, but I'm all for the reporting. A criminal act is by its nature something that perpetrators try to conceal.
Is it more important for public officials to actively cultivate a positive image or just do the jobs they were charged with?
It's more important to present a positive image so the public can have faith in the honesty of the government. There isn't a government official from the president on down who does not encounter an ethical dilemma.
That's not unlike ordinary citizens. Every ordinary citizen encounters an ethical dilemma. Do they ever miss a tax return? Do they pick up a $20 bill they find randomly? The public needs to focus on how officials handle ethical dilemmas, not just the dilemma happening.