When Openness Backfires 

Poor Mack Cooper. (Go ahead. Start the letter-writing campaign.)

Ten years ago, a senior gubernatorial aide who got drunk and made some lewd and improper comments on a bus back from a political event (this is what we think happened) would have been privately disciplined, perhaps reassigned and watched like a hawk from there on. Or, if his offenses were chronic and more serious, he'd be sacked, and his breaches fully documented by his supervisor.

But the chain of events for Gov. Phil Bredesen's legislative lobbyist has been altogether different. Publicly chastised, demoted and lynched in the press, lobbyist Mack Cooper's reputation is in the gutter. Problem is, it's unclear whether such treatment has been fair. Maybe he's a dirty rotten scoundrel. Or maybe he's a poor sucker of a good ol' boy who made a mistake and had to be made an example of in the heated environment of political ethics and the raised expectations of open government on Capitol Hill.

We suspect that Gov. Bredesen's decision to pen a letter to Cooper, copying it to every media outlet in the state and announcing his staffer's vague "sexual harassment" offense and subsequent demotion, was a well considered political calculation. Being a "good government" guy who's getting battered all across the state for taking a sharp axe to the state's public health care program, Bredesen certainly wouldn't have wanted the media to get wind of the harassment incident and charge the governor with trying to cover up a senior staff member's poor behavior. "Bredesen Tolerates Sex Harassment," the editorial headlines would read.

We can certainly understand his response, and might also have, in the interest of openness, counseled Bredesen to make a public statement. But we'd also be sure that, to the degree that we were publicly identifying someone as a sexual harasser and an alcohol abuser (Bredesen's letter noted that gem too), we'd have documented information to back it up. And we'd exercise consistently good judgment during the investigation, which we'd make sure would withstand scrutiny.

This is where the governor's folks let him down.

As it happens, a state investigator looking into the accusation against Cooper shredded her notes, counter, The Tennessean has dutifully reported, to the state's own "investigative checklist" that it teaches as part of a harassment and discrimination workshop. It's also counter to common sense.

The governor and other state officials have said that the methodology of not taking notes—and destroying those that are taken—was used to protect the person or people reporting the alleged offense(s). But such guarantees of discretion could (and do) exist even when diligent records and written notes are kept in private investigative files. Why not in this instance?

That Phil Bredesen, a man who, to his credit, has no tolerance for workplace shenanigans or unprofessional conduct, would continue to employ Cooper suggests that the lobbyist's offense(s) did not rise to the level of firing. So why was it deserving of very public character assassination?

We feel no righteous indignation that the media somehow has a right to know all the juicy details. We just happen to think that, under the circumstances, nobody else did either.


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