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When officials try to recover from lies

Embracing honesty

Government officials, after being caught in fraud, can also move to prevent such ethical lapses. Here are a few recent examples, from the US to China.

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    Greece's Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, bottom, addresses lawmakers in Athens May 22 as parliament prepares to vote on reforms to keep its word to foreign creditors about the country's fiscal soundness.
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When officials lie, the press often pounces like a fox, as it should. But what may matter more is how government recovers, learning to loathe lying and embrace honesty. As famed New York Jets quarterback Joe Namath once said, “It’s not how you fall that counts.... It’s how you get up.”

Scratch around the news these days and you can find many governments either trying to overcome an ethical breach or being forced to. Here are a few recent examples:

Last Thursday, lawyers at the US Justice Department were cited for deceiving a federal judge in an important case about President Obama’s plan to grant legal status to thousands of young, unauthorized immigrants. The district judge, Andrew Hanen, said the lawyers “chose not to tell the truth” in granting more than 100,000 work permits to immigrants despite his temporary injunction against such a move. He wrote in a 28-page order that “it is hard to imagine a more serious, more calculated plan of unethical conduct.”

The department admitted what it had done. But Judge Hanen saw the need to order the Justice Department to provide three hours of ethics training a year for all its lawyers – for the next five years. And he wants Attorney General Loretta Lynch to present a plan to prevent similar lapses among Justice lawyers.

In China, a similar correction may be under way. In January, the head of the National Bureau of Statistics, Wang Baoan, was dismissed and charged with corruption. In addition, more than 300 of the bureau’s employees were found guilty of providing the real (and hidden) data to private investors for financial gain.

For decades, investors in China have complained that official statistics had a “wind of falsification and embellishment.” But as the economy has slowed, these worries have grown. The ruling Communist Party cannot afford to lose investors. Even Premier Li Keqiang has expressed doubts about the accuracy of government figures, especially those measuring gross domestic product.

In April, the premier appointed a respected economist, Ning Jizhe, to head the statistics agency. In a report about the agency’s reform, Goldman Sachs stated, “There’s reason to believe that the quality of data coming out of China will improve over time.”

In Greece, where past official lies about budget deficits triggered a financial crisis for the eurozone in 2009, the Parliament passed measures Sunday to assure foreign creditors that the government will meet its budget targets. A new law would automatically cut pensions and government wages if officials fail to hold down spending.

“Greece has shown it keeps its promises.... I’m certain [contingency] measures will not have to be put into effect,” said Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras.

In Russia, meanwhile, officials are slowly coming to grips with a huge scandal over what the World Anti-Doping Agency called “state-sponsored” doping of the country’s athletics – and then lying about it. The International Association of Athletics Federations, which oversees global track and field, has suspended all Russian athletes from its events. It will decide by June 17 whether to lift the ban in time for the Summer Olympics in Brazil.

The Russian sports ministry has since admitted the country has a doping problem and “that changes are needed.” But international sports bodies are waiting for remedies. Natalia Zhelanova, an anti-doping adviser to the ministry, told Britain’s Press Association, “We understand that we have a huge problem.... We want to build a system where people with high moral codes can speak out and maybe become heroes.”

As Joe Namath might say, that would be a “how you get up” moment.

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