The passing of Paul Sarbanes has prompted universal praise for a man frequently referred to — by colleagues on both sides of the political aisle — as one of the most “decent” lawmakers to ever serve the U.S. Senate.
The son of Matina (Tsigounis) and Spyros who emigrated from Laconia, Greece, Sarbanes began his career cleaning tables and washing dishes at his parents’ restaurant on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
He attended Princeton University on scholarship, studied in England on a Rhodes Scholarship and graduated from Harvard Law School before embarking on a career in politics.
He served four years in the Maryland House of Delegates before being elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1970 for three consecutive two-year terms.
Sarbanes earned a coveted spot on the Judiciary Committee and became a crucial voice on the panel during the Watergate scandal and actually drafted the article of impeachment approved by the committee that led to the resignation of Richard Nixon as President.
He was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1976 and would serve for five consecutive terms, choosing to not seek reelection to a sixth term in 2006.
During his years in Congress, Sarbanes was known for backing liberal legislation, including measures to promote low-income housing, environmental protection and preservation, investor protection and consumer privacy.
He helped shape legislation affecting Social Security, tax policy and campaign financing. He did not write or introduce many bills, arguing instead that the important work of Congress is done in the negotiating that takes place in the committees and subcommittees. He was adept at the unglamorous tasks of drafting and redrafting amendments and details that could draw bipartisan support for the measures he backed.
Perhaps his most well-known legislative work was an act that made him reviled on Wall Street and Corporate America, but a champion of common people impacted by corporate disfunction.
As chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, he co-wrote, with Rep. Michael G. Oxley a Republican from Ohio, the 2002 Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which was intended to ensure that publicly held businesses disclose to potential investors an accurate and complete portrayal of their financial condition.
The Sarbanes-Oxley law gave prosecutors new tools to enforce laws against business executives who mislead and defraud investors, and it was among the most far-reaching legislation regarding securities since the Great Depression.
It came in the wake of accounting scandals at companies such as Enron, Tyco International, Adelphia, Peregrine Systems and WorldCom, in which the true values of the businesses were overstated, deceiving investors who lost billions of dollars when the stock prices of the companies collapsed.
A Champion for Greece, Cyprus and Greek America
From his first days in Congress, Sarbanes became a champion for causes of importance to Greek Americans. His work on these causes is reflected in the dozens of statements from organizations, fellow lawmakers and community leaders.
“Without Senator Sarbanes’ strong advocacy, and the respect he garnered during his service and a leader in Congress, the community’s effort to impose an arms embargo on Turkey, following Turkey’s illegal invasion and occupation of the Republic of Cyprus in 1974, would not have been a success.” – American Hellenic Institute.
The American Hellenic Educational and Progressive Association (AHEPA), of which Sarbanes was a long time member, called him “a titan of the American Hellenic community” and shared numerous anecdotes from his involvement in the organization’s events and awards he received.
“As a true statesmen and champion of justice, truth and courage, Senator Paul Sarbanes always will be remembered for the values we continue to cherish,” said the American Hellenic Council in a statement.
President-elect Joe Biden recounted decades of work alongside Sarbanes in a Tweet he shared.
“Paul Sarbanes and I served together on the Foreign Relations Committee for 30 years. There was no one sharper, more committed, or with firmer principles. And he, too, returned to his family nearly every night. They meant the world to him. Rest In Peace, Paul,” Biden Tweeted.
Archbishop Elpidophoros, head of the Greek Orthodox Church in the United States, called Sarbanes the “pride of this nation and the Greek diaspora,” in a Tweet, sharing a photo of the senator receiving an award from Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.
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