Critical crossroads

By Nancy Ridgeway
October 24, 2011

Steve Brown, a former Missouri state representative and disbarred lawyer, hopes his story about committing a white-collar felony will dissuade others from making similar mistakes. Brown and ethics professor Hank Shea gave a presentation at Bradley last week that explored the point at which ethics, law, and politics intersect.

About 60 Bradley students, faculty and staff listened as Brown shared his story publicly for the first time. Brown, whose goal had been a career in politics, served one year of his first term in office in 2009 when he pleaded guilty to a federal charge of obstruction of justice related to an investigation of former Missouri Sen. Jeff Smith’s unsuccessful 2004 bid for U.S. Congress. To read more about the case, visit

Brown later was sentenced to two years’ probation and a $40,000 fine. He lost his law license and resigned from political office the day of his guilty plea. “I was thrown out of every club and from every board I had worked toward for the first 42 years of my life. I had my wife and kids, but otherwise, professionally, everything was gone,” Brown said.

He offered two pieces of advice for anyone going into politics. First, consider each small decision you make. Poor decisions, he said, happen in small steps, and people must look into the future when deciding how to handle a situation. Second, have a confidant who is not in politics and who can “give you a real perspective and set your head straight.”

Shea added, “You will have ethical decisions to make your entire life. A simple test whenever you are faced with a tough decision is to ask yourself, ‘Whatever decision I make, can I live with it becoming public?’ If the answer is ‘Yes, I can live with it,’ then it will be fine 99.9 percent of the time.”

Shea is a senior distinguished fellow at the University of St. Thomas School of Law and a former assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Minnesota. He is the founding administrator of an ethics program that involves joint presentations with felons at law schools, business schools, colleges, high schools and other locations. Bradley’s presentation was sponsored by Bradley University, the Institute for Principled Leadership in Public Service, Bradley’s Pre-Law Center and the Office of Legal Education Programs.