I ndiana Department of Child Services Director James Payne’s resignation opens a window on much of what is wrong about government these days.
Payne, a former juvenile court judge, left his post this week after The Indianapolis Star reported that he had used his position to influence DCS decisions in a child custody battle that involved his grandchildren. The Star reported that he wanted to keep the custody fight going after DCS wanted to drop it when it appeared that Payne’s son, the children’s father, was going to lose.
Despite the fact that Payne left a paper trail — he even filed a legal brief critical of DCS — he apparently did not inform Gov. Mitch Daniels of his apparent conflict of interest. Nor did the governor’s office seem to know about the conflict until The Star started reporting on the story.
Payne’s departure from DCS gave fresh ammunition to the ongoing partisan battle.
Democrats, led by their gubernatorial candidate, John Gregg, said that the former judge’s resignation was only a start and that the DCS must undergo even more sweeping changes if the department is to serve the state’s children well. They noted that this is the second high-profile misstep that the Daniels administration has made in regard to families and children, the other being the aborted attempt to revamp the Family and Social Services Administration in partnership with IBM that ended up in litigation with IBM getting a preliminary judgment of more than $50 million from the state.
Daniels and the Republican candidate for governor, Mike Pence, perhaps predictably were more forgiving. They argued, in effect, that Payne was a good man who made a minor error of judgment and should be forgiven because his heart was in the right place.
“His resignation does not alter the plain truth that thousands of Indiana children are better off and many are alive only because of the passionate and devoted leadership of this fine public servant,” Daniels said in accepting Payne’s resignation.
Pence responded in a similar vein.
“I defer entirely to Gov. Daniels’ judgment in accepting the resignation of Judge Payne. The present controversy aside, I believe Judge Payne’s tenure as director of the Department of Child Services has contributed significantly to the health, safety and welfare of children in Indiana,” Pence said.
These are interesting responses for a couple of reasons.
The first, of course, is that one wonders if both Daniels and Pence would have been quite so charitable to anyone who has not been the darling of tough-love conservatives for as long as Payne has. My guess is that if a liberal or just any Democrat had been caught in a similar conflict, Daniels’ and Pence’s screams of protest would have sounded to the heavens.
But, then again, partisan-based hypocrisy is hardly a new phenomenon. Politicians in both parties find it a lot easier to point fingers at the folks wearing the other team’s jersey than they do taking tough stands with their own squad.
The second reason is more important. Daniels’ and Pence’s responses demonstrate one of the vulnerabilities of the conservative approach to governance. They genuinely don’t seem to get what was wrong about Payne’s conflict.
Daniels, Pence and, frankly, Payne all have advocated that government can’t do many things well.
All three have argued that government is frequently inefficient, that it often is an obstacle to progress and that the way government works doesn’t make sense to them.
In short, at the heart of their beliefs there is a kind of contempt for government.
It’s a relatively short step from having contempt for government to having contempt for the rules by which government and government officials must operate.
Payne dismissed concern about his possible conflict as trivial. Daniels and Pence treated it as if it were nothing more than a tiny bump in the road.
But the idea that a public official should not use his position to aid his own personal interest is not a difficult concept to grasp.
The fact that Payne (a former judge), Daniels (a governor) and Pence (a member of Congress) didn’t get seem to understand that is, well, revealing.
John Krull is director of Franklin College’s Pulliam School of Journalism, host of “No Limits” WFYI 90.1 FM Indianapolis and executive editor of TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.