Opinion Columns & Blogs

Forgive John McGee and Brent Coles? Sure, but that doesn’t mean they should get back into public office

F. Scott Fitzgerald is often quoted as writing, “There are no second acts in American lives,” although he may have been misquoted, when he actually wrote, “I once thought that there were no second acts in American lives, but there was certainly to be a second act to New York’s boom days.”

These certainly seem to be boom days for politicians, both locally and nationally, who are looking for second acts.

Disgraced former Boise mayor Brent Coles announced Friday that he wants to be mayor again, and disgraced former state Sen. John McGee filed Friday to get back into public service by running for Caldwell City Council.

With so many newcomers moving into the Treasure Valley, some people may not be familiar with the history of the candidates. For many people who were here at the time of Coles’ resignation and fall from grace in 2003, his announcement that he’s running for mayor came as a surprise.

While mayor, Coles was charged in 2003 by the Idaho Attorney General’s Office with two misdemeanor charges stemming from a trip Coles and his wife took to the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, which was paid for by Blue Cross of Idaho. Further investigation led to a grand jury indictment of Coles on five felony counts for misuse of public funds, centered around a taxpayer-paid conference in Rochester, New York, that Coles skipped out on to take a side trip to New York City with other city employees.

Among the charges, Coles was accused of submitting invoices for expenses that included airfare, lodging, meals and car rentals for other unauthorized personal side trips totaling in the thousands of dollars.

Coles eventually took an Alford plea to two charges in exchange for the state dropping three other charges against him. He received a withheld judgment, which meant the plea could be expunged from his record and he could regain his right to vote and hold public office again.

In the wake of the scandal, the city of Boise conducted a more thorough audit of city finances and found several other city spending discrepancies, and then instituted a series of budget reforms.

It was more than just one little trip at issue.

Other findings included more side trips costing tens of thousands of dollars; budget line items adjusted and revised to “cover up” unauthorized spending and budget overruns; wasted money on “no-show fees” for rooms that were reserved but not used at the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City; a vehicle allowance for Coles of as much as $700 a month to cover his car expenses, even though he still charged the city for his gasoline purchases; “selective employees” in the mayor’s office getting substantial raises without city council knowledge; and $80,000 in charitable donations from the city going to Drug Free Idaho, a nonprofit organization, while Coles sat on the group’s board, creating a potential conflict of interest.

Other findings included excessive employee bonuses; lax internal controls of tracking property worth less than $1,500, leaving the items vulnerable to theft by employees; lax tracking and justifying of spending and travel; credit-card receipts that did not always show the purpose of expenditures; and city employees using purchasing cards to buy thousands of dollars in food, flowers, clothes and items without clear uses for city business. The city did not have processes in place to ensure that all the purchases were appropriate.

It was a series of indiscretions and, in the end, outright criminal behavior. Reverberations of the scandal are still felt to this day. It was a dark and damaging period in Boise’s history.

In McGee’s case, he was arrested in 2011 for DUI and a felony charge for stealing an SUV and crashing it in a driveway in Meridian. McGee pleaded guilty to misdemeanor DUI, sparing him a felony conviction that would have forced him from the Senate. In January 2012, McGee returned to the Legislature and retained his position as caucus chairman, after no one even opposed him for the position.

Thus began McGee’s second act, his chance at redemption. So what did he do with his second chance?

McGee ended up resigning just weeks later after a female Senate staff member accused him of propositioning her for sex and making a series of other unwanted sexual advances inside his Idaho Capitol office, which at times McGee locked behind them, according to public records obtained by The Associated Press.

The woman told investigators that he first propositioned her on Feb. 7 after locking the door to his fourth-floor Capitol offices. When she refused and left, he told her, “’This never happened,” according to the police report.

However, she told investigators that the next week, he suggested she perform oral sex on him, and during another encounter grabbed her buttocks. She told police that on Feb. 15, McGee again called her into his office, locked the door and asked her to take her shirt off, according to the police report, as reported at the time by AP. She told detectives that she left the room while he was performing a sex act.

McGee pleaded guilty to misdemeanor disturbing the peace and completed a 39-day stint in jail.

I can’t help but ask the question, “Is this the best we can do?” Of all the candidates out there, can’t we do better than people who have misused public funds or been accused of sexual harassment?

Given our political climate, in which bad behavior is too often overlooked and accepted, it is indeed a sad sign of our times that McGee and Coles could have the hubris to even consider running for public office again. Grant me just half the self-confidence these men have.

I also have to question whether electing Coles or McGee would be good for their respective cities. Does Boise want to be known as the city that elected a mayor whose first stint in the job ended because he misused public funds, violated the public trust and triggered a series of reforms? Will it be good for Caldwell’s image to have a City Council member who blew his chance at redemption in such a spectacular and reprehensible way?

Voters are free to make their own decisions, and if you decide that you can “forgive and forget” to vote for McGee or Coles, you absolutely have that right.

On a personal level, you could give them the benefit of the doubt, believe they are “changed men” who have learned from their mistakes, turned over a new leaf and reformed. It’s conceivable that they could regain your personal trust. You could do business with them, buy a house from them, even become friends with them if you want.

Forgive them, sure, but that doesn’t mean you should allow them back into the public trust.

On a good day, I could understand wanting to forgive Coles and McGee. I just can’t see my way to trusting them with public office again.

Scott McIntosh is the Opinion editor of the Idaho Statesman. You can email him at smcintosh@idahostatesman.com or call him at 208-377-6202. Follow him on Twitter @ScottMcIntosh12.

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This column shares the personal opinions of Idaho Statesman opinion editor Scott McIntosh on current issues in the Treasure Valley, in Idaho and nationally. It represents one person’s opinion and is intended to spur a conversation and solicit others’ opinions. It is intended to be part of an ongoing civil discussion with the ultimate goal of providing solutions to community problems and making this a better place to live, work and play. Readers are encouraged to express their thoughts by submitting a letter to the editor. Click on “Submit a letter or opinion” at idahostatesman.com/opinion.

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Always full of opinions and tolerant of others, Scott McIntosh is the opinions editor for the Idaho Statesman. He has won dozens of state and national awards, including Best Editorial from the Idaho Press Club for 2017.
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