In the Wake Of The BP Disaster, Another Andersonville Trial

Someone has to be held responsible, even if nobody is to blame.

Someone has to be held responsible, even if nobody is to blame.

I don’t know about you, but I was certainly surprised to discover that in the view of the Justice Department, two men I had never heard of, Robert Kaluza and Donald Vidrine, were the ones responsible for the April 20, 2010 explosion of a BP oil rig that caused millions of barrels of oil to leak into the Gulf of Mexico for months, polluting the waters and the shores and causing billions of dollars of damages. That is the clear implication of the decision to prosecute the two rig  supervisors for manslaughter in the deaths of the eleven BP workers who perished in the blast.

Obviously, this makes no sense at all. Other government authorities have treated the BP spill as resulting from a complex series of errors, misjudgments, and regulatory violations on the part of several companies and their management teams. The allocation of responsibilities and damages will take years to unravel. How then can Kaluza and Vidrine, who are accused of disregarding abnormally high pressure readings that according to the government should have alerted them to the danger of a  blowout at BP’s Macondo well, be the ones facing criminal charges and prison time? How can this be fair, just, or even possible?

It isn’t fair or just. It is possible because it is easier to finger the two middle-managers who inherited the flawed well equipment that was a ticking time bomb than to put a whole company, or many companies, behind bars. As the F.B.I. agent investigating the theft of the Declaration of Independence keeps telling Nicholas Cage’s treasure hunter in the Dan Brown rip-off  movie “American Treasure,” “Somebody has to go to jail.” Kaluza and Vidrine may be the designated villains for the BP spill. Their only crime was one of moral luck: they were in the wrong place at the wrong time, the final links in a tangled chain of incompetence, corruption and miscalculations. Continue reading

Outrageous Corporate Conduct 2011: Transocean’s Unconscionable Bonuses

"Sure, but other than THAT: great night at the theater, right?"

I believe that much of the time the corporate sector is unfairly treated by the media, politicians, and the public. Part of this conviction arises from my experience working at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, directly under its current president when he was a rising young Turk. I dealt with corporate executives every day, and got to see the challenges of big business from their side. Most of the time, they struck me as genuinely concerned about workers, communities, fairness, while believing, of course, that an unfettered private sector was in the economic interest of everyone.

Increasingly, however, I see corporate behavior that is so arrogant, so transparently greedy, so contemptuous of the public’s intelligence, so blatantly, obnoxiously wrong that I wonder if it was all a dream. There was AIG, accepting billions from American taxpayers to save it from the consequences of its own fiduciary crimes, immediately spending some of it on lush retreats and parties for its executives. There were the leaders of Goldman Sachs, telling gape-jawed U.S. Senators that, no, they didn’t see anything unethical about selling their trusted clients investment products so awful that the company made money betting on their failure. There are the U.S. banks, hoarding their money and refusing to refinance mortgages that were unconscionable to begin with,  preferring to make the nation’s economic problems worse by foreclosing on families’ homes rather than making a good faith effort to undo a human and social catastrophe that was substantially of their own making.

Now comes the news that Transocean Ltd., owner of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, has announced that it is giving millions of dollars in bonuses to its executives after “the best year in safety performance in our company’s history.”  Which seems perfectly reasonable, unless you want to make a big deal over that one little Gulf oil spill incident last April…you know, the one that began when a Transocean oil rig exploded, killing eleven people including nine Transocean employees. Continue reading

Unethical Quote of the Week: President Obama

“Some of what I’ve heard coming out of Wisconsin, where they’re just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain generally, seems like more of an assault on unions. I think everybody’s got to make some adjustments, but I think it’s also important to recognize that public employees make enormous contributions to our states and our citizens.”

—-President Obama, commenting on Wisconsin’s budget balancing measures, which will include ending collective bargaining by some public employee unions.

"Ladies and gentlemen...The President of the United States!"

This an abuse of power. No doubt about it.

For all his vaunted intellect, the President has displayed a stunningly flat learning curve in acknowledging and respecting the limits of Presidential influence, otherwise known as “sticking your nose where it doesn’t belong” or “shooting of your mouth about something that is none of your damn business.” In less than three years in office, he has… Continue reading

Chevron, Environmentalists, Hoaxes, and the Ethics of Dialogue

Chevron, the oil giant, rolled out a new ad campaign this week. It announced that Chevron agrees with critics and environmentally concerned Americans that it has critical responsibilities, such as reinvesting profits into socially responsible projects, seeking renewable energy sources, and taking extra steps to protect the environment. “We hear what people say about oil companies – that they should develop renewables, support communities, create jobs and protect the environment – and the fact is, we agree,” says Rhonda Zygocki, Chevron’s vice president of Policy, Government and Public Affairs, in the company’s press release. “This campaign demonstrates our values as a company and the greater value we provide in meeting the world’s demand for energy.  There is a lot of common ground on energy issues if we take the time to find it.” Continue reading

Obama, the Bomber, and the Dangers of Deceit

I live in the Washington,D.C. area, and I often say that deceit is the official language here. Deceit is an artful form of lying in which literally truthful statements are made in a manner, tone and context designed to deceive others into believing something that is not true, by playing on their assumptions, hopes or trust. Like any other lie, it allows the liar to gain tangible benefits, but with less risk than with a normal lie.  If a deceitful statement is unmasked after an individual has relied on it, the originator of the deceit  can and often does blame the duped listener, who “misunderstood” or “jumped to conclusions.” That’s the special upside of deceit.

The downside of deceit is that it is the calling card of especially slippery people, the preferred device of the verbally adept and the unconscionably manipulative. Effective deceit takes work and talent; show me someone who can be deceitful easily, and I will show you someone whom neither of us should trust.

That is why this statement by President Obama from last week is so discouraging, and perhaps, a tipping point in his relationship to the American people: Continue reading

Florida Lawyer Quits For The Right Reason, But Will Get Credit For The Wrong One

Florida lawyer Dan Gelber quit his law firm, Akerman Senterfitt, after BP hired the firm to represent it in the oil claims process. This will undoubtedly help him in his campaign for Florida Attorney General (Gelber is currently a state senator). His decision to resign is a very prudent and ethical one, but not for the reason most Floridians will think. Continue reading

Ethics Audit: the Deep-Water Oil-Drilling Ban Saga

President Obama’s ban on deep-water oil drilling in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon Gulf oil disaster pits important ethical values against each other: fairness vs. responsibility. On both sides of the equation is prudence. New Orleans federal judge Martin Feldman over-ruled the ban and issued an injunction against it, saying in effect that there was no contest: the ban isn’t fair, prudent, or responsible.

The Obama Administration’s ethical argument supporting the ban goes something like this: Continue reading

What’s Wrong and Not Wrong About the BP CEO’s Yachting Weekend

Tony Heyward. the beset and beleaguered BP CEO who has become the public face of the oil company blamed for the devastating Gulf oil leak, took the weekend off to attend a yacht race off the Isle of Wight. For this he is being pummeled with more criticism, from Rahm Emanuel to Sen. Richard Shelby to angry bloggers on the Left, Right, and Center. Is going to a yacht race really that wrong, in ethical terms? Does it breach any duties or obligations? Here is the score card on what’s right, or at least “not wrong” about his conduct, and what is worthy of legitimate criticism. Continue reading

The Incredibly Unethical BP Boycott

Readers of Ethics Alarms know that I think boycotting is at best economic bullying, at worst a non-violent form of terrorism, and generally unethical except in cases so rare that they are difficult to imagine. The current BP boycott is close to the worst variety, blunt and destructive mob anger akin to the reaction of the excitable citizens of Homer Simpson’s Springfield, whose solution to every crisis seems to be a riot.

BP was outrageously and perhaps criminally negligent in creating the conditions that led to the Gulf oil spill, and it is right and just that the burden of accountability and responsibility has fallen on them. And it certainly has fallen on them: as much as every citizen of the United States may want to personally kick the company while it is prone, the fact is that the dire consequences of its misconduct are already overwhelming, both long and short-term. Right now, the Gulf states are still dependent on the diligence and expertise of the company to try to limit the damage it has caused, and the company is, if only for its own survival, doing the best it can to succeed. This fact alone would make a public boycott of BP at this time senseless and counter-productive.

The boycott is also unfair. Continue reading