Three people walk into a bank.
The first, a soccer mom in Spandex, withdraws money from the ATM in the lobby, and departs for her Pilates class.
The second, a disheveled meth addict, pulls a gun and forces a teller to hand over a wad of bills. He too departs for that Pilates class, where he steals valuables from the lockers.
The third bank visitor is wearing an expensive suit and tie, hand-crafted leather shoes, and a watch that cost more than a car. He makes a legitimate withdrawal at the ATM before his meeting with the bank president, where he presents fraudulent documents that convince the president to loan him millions that will be squandered in a pyramid scheme involving phony Pilates studios.
Who's the most moral?
I think we can agree that the soccer mom's money is clean — even though she's carrying on simultaneous secret affairs with the bank president, her Pilates instructor, and John Edwards; is ignoring obvious signs her 15-year-old son is operating a pornographic Web site from his bedroom; and she drinks coffee grown in non-environmentally friendly conditions by workers who aren't paid livable wages.
I don't think there's any argument the meth addict's funds are dirty — even though he used a portion of those proceeds to pay his child support and make a substantial donation to Haitian earthquake relief. He's also scrupulous about bringing reusable cloth bags on his shoplifting excursions.
Here's where it gets tricky, because the third bank customer obtained his cash from two sources. He withdrew some from his account. That's clearly OK. But he got the rest from a con job. And that's wrong. On the morality scale, how does he rank?
That question is too sticky for a guy who makes his money in journalism and Powerball tickets, so I defer to the experts at the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices.
In late January, this august body (slightly pudgier than a July body, possibly because it's been skipping Pilates classes) was faced with an issue not dissimilar to that raised by our Madoff-like bank scammer. After considerable deliberation (involving about the same amount of time contestants have to answer the "Final Jeopardy" question), the members decided it would be acceptable for gubernatorial candidates who qualify for public funding — "Clean" money — to also, under certain circumstances, accept private donations — including filthy cash from meth dealers and Ponzi-scheme operators.
That's because the Maine Clean Election Fund may not have enough money to pay for all the gubernatorial campaigns that want their invoices for TV spots and lawn signs covered by taxpayer dollars. Currently, eight of the 23 potential goobs are seeking public funding (Green Independent Lynne Williams announced last week that she could not "in good conscience" take the public money she wouldn't have qualified for anyway). Several others are about as likely to get that funding as I am of leading a Pilates class.
Nevertheless, if just four Blaine House hopefuls fulfill the requirements to go "Clean" in the primary, and three make it to the general election, the fund will go broke.
Clearly, a contingency plan is needed, and the ethics commissioners have come through with one that bears an uncanny resemblance to that third bank customer.