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April 16, 2014

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In the wake of scandal, are past good deeds worth anything?

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Steve Marcus

Scales of justice: How much credit should we get for good works if we do bad deeds?

If Kathleen Vermillion had a Wikipedia page, it would touch on her history as a runaway and impressive rise as a public servant, her dedication to homeless kids and work as a city councilwoman. But these bullet points might pale beside a hot-linked reference to a very public, very sad fall from grace.

Vermillion is still in the air. Since late last year, she has been accused of (in random order) extorting her ex-boyfriend, coercing her teenage daughter and misappropriating city discretionary funds and donations to the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth—the charity she founded and grew over more than a decade. After a “medical episode” and amid speculation about attempted suicide, she dropped her own suit against her ex, County Commissioner Steve Sisolak, which had claimed defamation and invasion of privacy related to a drug test, in which she tested positive for methadone.

The public has an elephant’s memory for scandal, but we’re goldfish when it comes to the flip side. Despite the charges against her, Vermillion is credited with the charity’s success. If she is proven guilty of wrongdoing, how will it be measured against what she did right—the years she spent working the streets and the courts, the lives she must have touched to garner “local hero” honors and an official nod from Congress? Does character entirely dissolve in moments of weakness?

History (and Wikipedia) would indicate that’s exactly how the cookie crumbles in spilled milk. Take Eliot Spitzer, former ultimate bad dude of criminal law. He prosecuted mobsters and frauds, crooked bankers and price fixers, making them pay billions in restitution. The nation lionized him, and New Yorkers voted him their governor. Then a federal wiretap linked him to a prostitution ring.

Since that disgrace, Spitzer has kept his head above water. When CNN canceled his talk show recently, he signed off with a quote by Teddy Roosevelt: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena.”

If Vermillion falls, her good works may not outweigh her bad deeds. But they will always have value.

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