The Presumption of Proper Conduct

The presumption of innocence, which Olmert and those close to him brandish in order to delay his fate, must be balanced against the need for proper conduct, as reflected in the code of ethics that Shamgar?s team put together.

About a month ago, former Supreme Court president Meir Shamgar gave Prime Minister Ehud Olmert a booklet containing a code of ethics for members of the cabinet. The document, the fruit of two years' work by Shamgar and professors Gabi Shilo and Asa Kasher, is an effort to formulate rules of proper behavior for the prime minister and other ministers.

The text of these principles is still sitting with the cabinet's secretariat; it has not yet been brought to the cabinet for approval. However, the gist of the code is well known, and the fact that it was recently presented to Olmert offers an opportunity for politicians, and the public at large, to judge Olmert's conduct in the affair of the cash-filled envelopes.

Specifically, the presumption of innocence, which Olmert and those close to him brandish in order to delay his fate, must be balanced against the need for proper conduct, as reflected in the code of ethics that Shamgar's team put together. In other words, on the level of criminal justice, Olmert is right in arguing that he must not be punished so long as it has not been proven in court that he did anything wrong - and especially when he has not yet even been indicted. But on the level of public norms, his behavior needs to be measured against the ethical code prepared by the Shamgar Committee.

The purpose of the code of ethics, according to the committee, is to nurture appropriate conduct by cabinet members, who are the public's trustees, in order to promote the general welfare, transparency and good government. The proposed code of ethics requires cabinet members to uphold the following values, among others: honesty, leadership, loyalty to the state's values, and teamwork.

"Honesty" means that a minister must do his job honestly and behave honestly in every way. He must be incorruptible, maintain the rule of law and use his powers only for the purposes for which they were granted, without bias, without conflicts of interests and without even the appearance of impropriety. "Leadership" means, among other things, serving as an emissary of the people and setting a personal example of suitable behavior. "Loyalty to the state's values" includes obeying the law. "Teamwork" demands, inter alia, that cabinet members work to nurture the public's trust in government and its organs.

According to the code of ethics, a cabinet member must carry out his duties solely in the best interests of the public. While doing his job, a cabinet member must not be motivated by economic profit or any other ulterior motive, whether on behalf of himself, his family, his friends or any other person with whom he is associated. A cabinet minister must conduct himself in a way that encourages trust in the government. He must ensure that his actions reinforce the presumption that they are in line with the public interest, the principles of good government and integrity; he must avoid any action that might undermine this presumption.

Furthermore, the code of ethics requires cabinet members to set a personal example in all their actions and to uphold the highest standards in their official and public capacities. Cabinet members must avoid even the appearance of violating these ethical guidelines, and even the appearance of involvement in or support for criminal activity. The expectation is that cabinet members will act to preserve and promote the rule of law and to uphold the principles of good government.

The code of ethics states that a cabinet member who is under investigation by the police on suspicion of having committed a crime must not avoid answering the investigators' questions. A cabinet member must not be actively involved, and must not even belong to organizations that are involved, in raising funds, unless he has received authorization from the head of the Ethics Committee (which the government is supposed to appoint in line with these recommendations). And the code states explicitly that when charges are brought against a cabinet member, he must resign his post.

But there is something ironic about the Shamgar Committee's work: The panel was set up by none other than Ehud Olmert, in June 2006, a short while after he formed his cabinet.

In order to grant the code of ethics binding force in the eyes of the public, the committee has proposed its publication (a step that would require amending the Basic Law on the Government). But until the cabinet approves the code of ethics (if it does), and until it decides to publish its exact content (if it does), the highlights being presented here are sufficient to give everyone a yardstick by which to judge whether Olmert is worthy of being allowed to stay in office.