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Dan Rodricks Commentary and conversation on life in Baltimore, Maryland and the USA

Rodricks: Swamped in sleaze, it's easy to forget that honest, selfless people abound

I come to this column having just finished a conference call with two young attorneys who represent a troubled man who spent 12 years in a Maryland prison for crimes he did not commit. At 67, the man has little in life but the clothes on his back; the attorneys say he’s one step away from homelessness. They are trying to get the man, who is in poor health, some compensation for his wrongful conviction and the years he lost in prison.

The attorneys are doing this pro bono — that is, neither they nor their law firm will receive any part of the compensation their client might get from the state.

And so, when I turn to matters at hand — corruption and self-dealing in high places, ethically-challenged public officials, bribery in college admissions, the use of the American presidency to advance the Trump brand — I have to remember that it’s not all bad. There are good people in the public arena, and not all have their hands out.

OK, enough of that.

Let’s talk about Catherine Pugh, the mayor of Baltimore, and Frank Kelly, the influential former state senator with the big insurance group in Baltimore County. They both sit on the board of directors of the University of Maryland Medical System, and they both benefited financially while holding those positions.

Pugh sold UMMS 100,000 copies of the “Healthy Holly” children’s books she created and published herself. The deal was worth $500,000. Let me tell you: There is not much of a market for self-published children’s books. A deal of that scale takes my breath away because it smells so bad. It might be legal, but it’s not right. Pugh netted $100,000 on the deal. That’s having your cake and eating the frosting, too. Pugh should resign from that board.

In 2017 and 2018 alone, Kelly’s insurance company had contracts worth $4.4 million with the hospital system. He needs to get off the board, too. He should have known better. In fact, the rest of the board should have known better. How is it not obvious to anyone with any sense of right and wrong that these deals constituted conflicts of interest?

You volunteer to serve on a board that oversees a big hospital system with a couple of billion in revenue, fine. If you want a piece of that action, also fine. So get off the board and get in line with everyone else.

I shake my head — and scratch it, too — when we learn about these things. It always appears that some people have far more audacity — or is it hubris, or a sense of entitlement, or greed? — than anyone in my vast circle of unindicted, never-even-audited friends and relatives. (Two of my cousins got into some kind of business deal together, and things got a little ugly. I don’t know much about it, but I heard things. The cousins no longer speak, but nobody went to jail. That’s all I got.)

I used to honestly think the swamp would get smaller — that, since Watergate and the sideshow of high-profile corruption that came out of Maryland in the 1970s, politicians and corporate types would play by the rules. There was a simple logic to that thinking. When white-collar crooks started going off to Allenwood and Lewisburg, those still engaged in corrupt practices would climb out of the swamp.

But it didn’t happen. In fact, the swamp expanded, reaching savings-and-loans and banks — once the domain of miserly men too conservative to take risks — and, of course, Wall Street, and now just about all aspects of American life.

The late columnist Mike Royko once proposed a motto for the city of Chicago: “Ubi est mea?” That’s Latin for, “Where’s mine?” And, of course, that was perfect for a city with a rich history of hard-knock politics and corruption. These days, “Ubi est mea?” could replace “E pluribus unum” as a motto for the nation.

Look at what the FBI dragged in this past week: 50 people — including Aunt Becky from “Full House”! — in six states accused of bribing and cheating to get their kids into prestigious and even not-so-prestigious colleges. These were wealthy people, too. They must have assumed that committing high-end bribery is a thing in the great American swamp, particularly if you have the means: You do whatever it takes to stay on top, or to make sure your kids stay there forever.

But, hey, I’m guessing here. I have no idea what goes on in the heads of people who can blow hundreds of thousands of dollars to sleaze their kids into colleges. And I’m not alone in that regard. Most of the people we know try to live honestly, without shame. If they volunteer to do something, they do it selflessly, to serve a cause. Their only profit is the satisfaction that comes with doing the right thing.

drodricks@baltsun.com

twitter.com/DanRodricks

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