I confess: I honestly don’t understand this problem. From the first time I had an expense account, it never occurred to me to use it for my own pleasure. If I had to eat out on the road, I picked an inexpensive restaurant. I didn’t charge hotel room movies to my employer—he wasn’t sending me there to be entertained. I flew coach, and paid for any personal long-distance calls. Why? Because it wasn’t my money. I was a fundraiser for a non-profit, and I knew that whatever the donors were giving money for, it wasn’t for me.
It became apparent over the years that few of my colleagues or bosses saw it that way, when it came to their own expenses, and that elected officials and corporate officers not only readily use other people’s money extravagantly, but also that few people object when they do. The conduct is clearly irresponsible and unfair; I would call it dishonest. But those in high positions seem to regard it as their right.
In Washington, D.C., Allen Sessoms, president of the University of the District of Columbia, is under fire for his charging the University for first-class air travel and thousand-dollar plane tickets over the past two years, as well as a luxury SUV for which he ordered an additional $6,000 chrome plated aluminum wheels, a charcoal interior and premium leather bucket seats. A TV report cited Sessoms’ purchase of a $7,952 “seat bed” ticket to Cairo, a $1,443 ticket to Boston, and a trip for Sessoms, his wife and two children to a conference in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Sessoms’s total compensation for fiscal 2008-09 was $315,650, along with a $1.6 million house in Northwest Washington paid for by the university, which is financed by Washington, D.C.
This is apparently not enough. UDC, not to mention the District, is continually strapped for cash, and is making cuts in its program. This has caused scrutiny of Sessoms spending habits that might have slipped under the media radar in cushier times. He clearly lacks the ethics alarm that should sound when one starts spending other people’s money, and a letter this week to the Washington Post may help explain his problem. The author, Chris Myers Asch, is coordinator for the National Center for Urban Education at UDC. Headlined “Weigh Allen Sessoms’s travel bills against what he has done for UDC”, the letter cited all of Sessom’s accomplishments at UDC, and concluded,
“Mr. Sessoms is far from perfect, but he is delivering much-needed change. It would be a shame if we were so distracted by “bling” that we missed the progress he has made.”
What???? WHAT??? “Far from perfect”? “So distracted by ‘bling'”??? Am I mad? Have I been transported to Bizarro World, where they eat the plates and throw away the food? A man who uses university, company or government funds for his own luxury, entertainment and comfort is a thief, and we are arguing whether this should be “weighed” against his poistive accomplishments while he makes $300,000 a year? Why do we tolerate this conduct? When did the false idea take hold, in Mr. Asch’s brain or anyone else’s, that as long as you think you are doing a good job, you can justifiably stick your employer with extravagant personal expenses?
Why, for that matter, don’t more people get angry when it is revealed that the President and First Lady fly in a personal trainer from Chicago at taxpayer expense, when there are perfectly competent personal trainers a subway ride away? When you are spending other people’s money, you have an obligation to be frugal, reasonable, responsible, and to spend only what is necessary to get the job done. I would like to see the President help the country fix its broken ethics alarm. Instead, it seems that his is broken too.
Maybe I imagining all this, and it is I who am confused. It seems so obvious what the ethical conduct should be, and yet all I see are broken ethics alarms, from Wall Street to the non-profit sector to the White House.