No Excuse for Swift

Motherhood doesn't justify Jane Swift's abuse of government office

As so often is the case in politics, the controversy surrounding Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Jane Swift in the last weeks has been more about her handling of the scandal than about the scandal itself. Swift was accused of having staffers baby-sit her young daughter and pick up her drycleaning, without pay. Her initial response was that as a working mother, she had added pressures which justified her actions. When asked why she had used a state police helicopter for a personal ride home before Thanksgiving, she responded, "I'm the lieutenant governor. And the lieutenant governor and the governor are allowed to use the state police helicopter."

At best, Swift's actions and responses are those of an elected official giddy with the power and perks of office. At worst, they show a woman totally out of touch with her constituents who is not only unwilling to admit her wrongdoing but also eager to use the working mother excuse. That doesn't sit well with those working mothers who don't have Swift's advantages of a stay-at-home husband and flexible working hours--never mind those single mothers on welfare who have suffered particularly under this administration. Swift also does a disservice to those government officials who are working mothers in the true sense of the phrase.

Swift has at last apologized for her behavior after clinging for a week to a firm and defiant response that she had done nothing wrong. But that apology was not only late in coming but also very short on substance. In a State House press conference, she said, "I believe that I have been somewhat blinded...by my desire to do what is in the best interests of my family. The mistake I made is not realizing that as lieutenant governor I have to handle things differently."

She has asked the State Ethics Commission to determine whether she wrongly used the state police helicopter and should thus pay back the $1,000 cost of the flight, but also claims she does not believe such a repayment is necessary. From Swift, the official most vocal in her condemnation of friend of the administration Peter Blute and his unethical activities, this personal reticence about her mistakes is particularly troubling. We pass over any discussion of her special $25,000 salary (as compared with the average $3,100 for part-time instructors) to teach one course at Suffolk Law School, which she defends as fair payment for the "valuable experience" she provides the class.

Swift's refusal to acknowledge her wrongdoing was galling, but her qualified apology--so dependent on the passive voice--is even more offensive to the citizens of the state where she is second in command. By referring to her familial obligations, she seeks pity from those in far more difficult circumstances than her own, and by claiming ignorance of the rules of high office, she trivializes her actions. It seems clear to everyone but Swift (and those in her administration, including Governor A. Paul Cellucci, who have supported her) that an executive in the private sector who had abused power and perks as she has done in the public sector would immediately be held responsible for ethical infractions. Swift needs to be honest with herself and with the people of Massachusetts before she can serve the state with integrity.