To become a citizen in classical Athens required swearing an oath. The young sons of citizens recited it as part of their military training. As members of the ruling class, the oath evoked a lifelong responsibility to temper power with integrity. One translation renders it as, “We will ever strive for the ideals and sacred things of the city, both alone and with many; We will unceasingly seek to quicken the sense of public duty; We will revere and obey the city’s laws.”
I encountered this oath on a daily basis when I was a student at the oldest school of public administration in the United States, some 20 years ago. Embossed on the walls of the Maxwell School at Syracuse University, it serves as an enduring symbol of civic virtue at a time when access to citizenship is thankfully broader than in ancient Athens.
Today, the ideals of the oath also offer a sharp rebuke to the conduct of the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, Scott Pruitt, whose tenure has left a deepening stain on the reputation of government as a place to selflessly serve one’s fellow citizens.
Whether or not you agree with Pruitt’s policy positions, he has demanded extravagances better befitting a dictator fearful of a hostile citizenry than a U.S. Cabinet member. Most Americans would struggle to pick him out of a lineup, but Pruitt tripled the size of his security detail to 20 bodyguards.
His spending on first-class travel is likewise justified as a security concern. He also spent $43,000 and violated federal law to install a soundproof booth to thwart eavesdropping staff. (Meanwhile, the rest of us make do with shutting our office door).
Pruitt’s lavish public spending is only matched by a disregard for ethical standards when it comes to his personal living costs. Fifty dollars a night will buy you a shared hostel space in pricey Washington, but Pruitt saw it as fair rent for his condo space. His landlord happened to be the wife of a lobbyist who had previously held fundraisers for Pruitt, and whose firm’s clients had business in front of the EPA. It may all be innocent, but the appearance of a conflict of interest weakens public trust.
EPA officials who questioned Pruitt’s self-aggrandizement were dismissed from the circle of power. When a Trump political appointee objected to spending $100,000 a month for Pruitt to join a private jet charter club, he was put on leave without pay. The head of Pruitt’s security was removed after he refused to violate EPA policy by using sirens to speed Pruitt’s path to a French restaurant in Washington. Others who questioned the first-class travel were reassigned.