Note To Prof. Painter On His Teeth Gnashing Over Trump’s Conflicts: “If You Have No Option, You Have No Problem,” or “NOW You Tell Us?”

Ethics expert Richard Painter, who was White House ethics counsel from 2005 to 2007, has authored a thorough, convincing and I’m quite certain accurate brief about all the problems arising from soon-to-be President Donald Trump’s vast business connections, and the conflicts of interest they can and will involve. It’s an automatic ethics train wreck. Here’s Painter:

Even absent a quid pro quo, the Emoluments Clause bans payments to an American public official from foreign governments. Yet they will arise whenever foreign diplomats stay in Trump hotels at their governments’ expense; whenever parties are organized by foreign governments in Trump hotels (Bahrain just announced such a party in a Trump hotel this week); whenever loans are made to the company by the Bank of China or any other foreign-government-owned bank; whenever rent is paid by companies controlled by foreign governments with offices in Trump buildings; and whenever there is any other arrangement whereby foreign government money goes into the president’s businesses….How can we expect a Trump administration to rein in loose lending practices, particularly in the real estate sector, when the president himself owes hundreds of millions of dollars to banks? What will he do when a foreign dictator acts up in a country where there is a Trump hotel?

Yikes. Yikes and true. Also Yikes, true, and why are you bringing this up now when there is absolutely nothing that can be done about it? Continue reading

Trump, Master Of Rationalizations, Scores A Perfect #4 AND A Perfect #5!

Former District of Columbia Mayor Marion Barry attends a news conference on the steps of Washington's city hall Monday, July 6, 2009. At the news conference Barry's attorney Frederick Cooke said Barry vehemently denies the allegation by Donna Watts-Brighthaupt, and that he's confident the stalking charge will be dropped. Barry, 73, stood behind Cooke but said nothing. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Somewhere, Marion Berry is smiling…

This is juuuust the beginning…

I have noted before that our President Elect never expresses any ethical awareness, and uses rationalizations exclusively to explain and justify his conduct. This is typical of say, 12-year-olds, but is less common among professionals in responsible positions.

Trump just authored a classic example, following the expression of concerns about his conflicts of interest, which are massive, unavoidable, and which should have been addressed seriously long ago, like in a Presidential debate, and at length. Unfortunately, Hillary Clinton and various journalists felt it would be more helpful to their cause to spend time talking about what Trump had said about an over-weight Miss Universe and in a private conversation with Billy Bush. How did that work out for you, guys?

Now various lawyers and ethics experts are saying that Trump “must” sell off his business holdings because his company’s myriad business entanglements will cast many White House decisions under a cloud. The President Elect has a neat answer for them, to wit:

“The law’s totally on my side, meaning, the president can’t have a conflict of interest.”

— Donald Trump, interview with the New York Times, Nov. 22, 2016

Bravo! This is a perfect expression of Ethics Alarms Rationalizations #4, and #5

4. Marion Barry’s Misdirection, or “If it isn’t illegal, it’s ethical.”

The late D.C. Mayor and lovable rogue Marion Barry earned himself a place in the Ethics Distortion Hall of Fame with his defense of his giving his blatantly unqualified girlfriend a high-paying job with the DC government. Barry declared that since there was no law against using the public payroll as his own private gift service, there was nothing unethical about it. Once the law was passed (because of him), he then agreed that what he did would be wrong the next time he did it.

Ethics is far broader than law, which is a system of behavior enforced by the state with penalties for violations. Ethics is good conduct as determined by the values and customs of society. Professions promulgate codes of ethics precisely because the law cannot proscribe all inappropriate or harmful behavior. Much that is unethical is not illegal. Lying. Betrayal. Nepotism. Many other kinds of behavior as well, but that is just the factual error in the this rationalization.

The greater problem with it is that it omits the concept of ethics at all.  Ethical conduct is self-motivated, based on the individual’s values and the internalized desire to do the right thing. Barry’s construct assumes that people only behave ethically if there is a tangible, state-enforced penalty for not doing so, and that not incurring a penalty (that is, not breaking the law) is, by definition, ethical.

Nonsense, of course. It is wrong to intentionally muddle the ethical consciousness of the public, and Barry’s statement simply reinforces a misunderstanding of right and wrong.

Continue reading

President Trump’s Massive, Unfixable, Unwaivable Conflict Of Interest…And Why Weren’t We Worrying About This BEFORE The Election?

trump-tower

Donald Trump, as President of the United States, will have an unprecedented conflict of interest—many, actually—that realistically cannot be fixed and never could. He will be President, and he will own a global set of businesses worth billions of dollars that his policies and decisions will unavoidably affect for better or worse, usually to his long term benefit or disadvantage.

Almost nobody, including me, and it’s my business to do so, focused substantially on the problem during the campaign. Trump, as  usually, airily dismissed the issue when it came up as if it was nothing, saying, “If I become president, I couldn’t care less about my company. It’s peanuts,” during one debate. “Run the company, kids. Have a good time.” Typical, stupid, and neither Clinton nor the moderator had the wit or information to follow up with the required, “Wait a minute, that doesn’t deal with the problem. Will you also not care about your kids, Mr. Trump? Your companies’ stockholders? Business partners? Employees?”

At least we know why Hillary was reluctant to pursue this issue, don’t we?

The Trump Organization’s executive vice president, Alan Garten, similarly brushed the problem away, saying in September, “His focus is going to be solely on improving the country. The business is not going to be a factor or an interest at that point.” That’s an incredible statement, naive at best, dishonest at worse. Of course it will be an interest. How could it not be? The question is whether it will be a factor. Human nature, and Trump’s nature, strongly suggest that it will be.

Who can tell with Trump? Maybe he really believes there’s no problem. After all, as I have written repeatedly and all evidence proves, the man doesn’t know ethics from ambergris. Whether he knows it or not, however, this is a massive  and potentially crippling problem for him and his administration, not to mention his children and his businesses. It is especially a problem because the same journalists who dismissed Hillary’s family foundation’s influence peddling while she was Secretary of State and after as another overblown conservative attack (after all, why should venality and hidden conflicts of interest interfere with electing the First Woman President?) have the long knives out to eviscerate Trump on any hint of impropriety, real or not, they can find.  This is real. Continue reading

The Gap Kids Ad

gapkids

The photo above was part of a recent ad campaign for Gap Kids. The campaign, which launched last week, is in collaboration with Ellen DeGeneres’ lifestyle brand ED. Gap is donating $250,000 to the charity Girls Inc. to support its economic literacy program.

Criticism erupted on social media and elsewhere that the ad gave a message of “passive racism.”

Nathalie Yves Gaulthier, founder of Le Petit Cirque, the youth performance group whose members are seen in the ad, tried to explain, saying in part:

“The child in the ad is not an ‘armrest,’ she’s the other girl’s little sister. They are a very close family. The child is a very young (junior) member with Le Petit Cirque, a humanitarian cirque company, and therefore a wee shyer than the more seasoned older outgoing girls. Our company is deeply saddened by some people misconstruing this as racist, and are keeping the children out if this at the moment to protect their beautiful feelings , but we are extremely supportive of dialogue in our country to move past any racial barriers…”

Gap decided that discretion was the better part of valor, and replaced the image in the campaign. It apologized to critics last week, saying:

“As a brand with a proud 46-year history of championing diversity and inclusivity, we appreciate the conversation that has taken place and are sorry to anyone we’ve offended. This GapKids campaign highlights true stories of talented girls who are celebrating creative self-expression and sharing their messages of empowerment. We are replacing the image with a different shot from the campaign, which encourages girls (and boys) everywhere to be themselves and feel pride in what makes them unique.”

It’s a non-apology apology, of course, a clear #8 on the Ethics Alarms Apology Scale:

“A forced apology for a rightful or legitimate act, in capitulation to bullying, fear, threats, desperation or other coercion.”

Corporations are more or less forced to capitulate to “gotcha!” accusations like this, because there is no up-side in fighting them, and the companies’ job is to make money while alienating as few people as possible. If Social Justice Warriors and aggressive race-baiters are determined to claim that an ad intentionally denigrates a black child as subordinate to white children, then that message will overwhelm the ad no matter what is said or seen. Continue reading

Business Ethics: Searching For An Effective Way To Show Contempt, And Failing Miserably

"You got a complaint?"

“You got a complaint?”

After yesterday’s excursion, I am adding Gold’s Gym to the long list of companies I will no longer patronize come Hell or high water. As my Dad used to say (he died exactly four years ago today, on my birthday, which I suspect may have been just another in a long line of his black humor pranks), “That and twenty cents will get you a ride on the MTA.”

Gold’s Gym screwed me in one of those little ways that doesn’t matter much in any one case, but that multiplied by thousands probably pays for some nice bonuses. I don’t appreciate this, and there should be a some way to make it stop, or at least hurt the company a little.  As with so many other unethical business practices, however, by other companies large and small, there isn’t, which is why those practices persist. And the fact that they are just scrimey, petty, unfair and wrong apparently isn’t that enough to make cause an executive somewhere in the chain of command who was raised right to just say, “Wait—this makes our company look like a used car lot.  Where’s our integrity?”  I suspect it’s because when such an executive does this, his boss says, “Integrity is nice, Bill, but that little trick pays for your raise.” To which Bill answers, “Oh. Never mind.” Continue reading

The Halliburton Plea Bargain: Why We Have To Start Sending Corporate Executives To Jail

"BAD company! BAD! Now go feel sorry while you count your money."

“BAD company! BAD! Now go feel sorry while you count your money.”

The news media and pundits were too entranced by Anthony Weiner’s package, the royal baby, whatever it was, and President Obama’s  third or fourth promise to make the economy his primary focus every waking hour between fundraisers and expensive junkets to notice that the old villain of the Left, Halliburton, once again got away with corporate villainy of the worst kind. You see, Halliburton executives engaged in ethics accounting, essentially balancing the possible penalties that might arise from illegal and unethical conduct against the benefits, and decided, sure, let’s destroy evidence that shows that Halliburton had more to do with the deadly and ecologically devastating Deepwater Horizon explosion that created the Gulf oil spill than regulators and the courts currently know.

The company’s crime—remember, Scooter Libby was sent to jail for obstructing justice regarding the investigation of a crime that didn’t exist—was discovered, so it made a sweet deal with the Justice Department: it agreed to pay the maximum allowable fine of $200,000 ( perspective: this would be considered a joke of a fine for steroid use by a major league baseball star) and will be subject to a three year probation; the company continue its cooperation with the government’s criminal investigation (which is its duty anyway), and to really show its contrition and yummy goodness, Halliburton made a voluntary contribution of $55 million to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to clean off those oil-covered sea birds and otters, and that kind of thing.

Awwwwwww…

Disgraceful and outrageous. Continue reading

The Yahoo! Mess

Yahoo’s CEO, Scott Thompson, just “resigned” from his post after it was clear that he was going to be sacked. He had been on the job just four months. Why the sudden exit? A simple Google search by a Yahoo! board member revealed that Thompson had lied on his résumé, claiming to have a degree in computer science. This opened a can of worm, Pandora’s box, and an ethics cornucopia, all wrapped in one:

  • Thompson’s initial response was that the mistake was “inadvertent,” and that he regretted not having caught the error. This attempt t0 brass his way out of deception of his own making should probably ensure that he never leads another company. If he had taken 20 seconds to think about it, Thompson would have realized that using a second lie to try to cover the first would only make it clear that his curriculum vitae fabrication was not an aberration. Naturally, it was quickly discovered that he had the same fabrication on his résumé when he had applied for his previous job. Continue reading

Unethical Ethics: How Business and Government Encourage Unethical Thinking In Their Ethics Training

Show us the way, O Wise and Ethical One!

Jack Abramoff, the corrupt lobbyist turned federal prisoner, then author and now ethics expert, will be giving a lecture on government and personal ethics at The University of Texas at Austin’s business school on May 2. This is not as unusual as it seems. My biggest competitors are felons and disbarred lawyers—they literally step right out of professional disgrace, and sometimes jail, into the lecture circuit. They are draws, and in a field like ethics, which is often prescribed as substitute for barbiturates, this is irresistible to professional development programmers and conference organizers. It also attracts the participants that most need real ethics training, but who seek what these fake ethics presenter usually have to offer:  real life-based advice on what you can’t get away with. This lesson has about as much to do with ethics as it does with Parcheesi, but unfortunately, that’s what is generally regarded as practical ethics.

Characters like Abramoff don’t have ethics alarms; they have survival alarms.  Business schools, politicians and the media still believe that aiming reforms at those alarms, in the form of tougher rules and enforcement, will make business and government more ethical. Think about it: the cultures will still be unethical; the people in them will be just as unethical, but because proven scofflaws and ethics corrupters like  Jack Abramoff will explain where they went wrong, all these people with dead ethics alarms, further deadened by absorbing  the wisdom of the most corrupt of a corrupt breed, will stop behaving unethically.

Good plan. Continue reading

The Donald’s Dangerous Ethics: Loyalty Trumps Honesty On “Celebrity Apprentice”

Your ethics ignorance makes me angry, Donald. You won't like me when I'm angry...

The original version of Donald Trump’s self-promoting  reality show competition “The Apprentice” occasionally created a useful business ethics scenario. Once The Donald started using B-list celebrities instead of real aspiring executives, however, the show deteriorated into ego insanity and the kind of freak show conflicts one would expect with participants like Jose Canseco, Joan Rivers and Dennis Rodman.

Surprisingly, last week’s episode blundered into a substantive, if confusing, ethics lesson. It was Donald Trump’s ethical priorities that were exposed, and as should surprise no one, they are as warped as Trump himself.

I can spare you all the details of the episode, which involved the weird assortment of celebs breaking into two teams to see who could devise the better commercial for Entertainment.com, as judged by the website’s execs. As usual, the losing team’s leader and the two team members fingered by her (in this case) had to have a show-down with Trump in “the Board Room” to determine who would be on the receiving end of Trump’s trademark line, “You’re fired!” This time one of the three potential firees was none other that  old Incredible Hulk himself, Lou Ferrigno, who has distinguished himself this season as a perpetual whiner, especially adept at blaming the members of his teams rather than accepting responsibility himself. He was richly deserving of the Trump pink slip in this episode, especially for the over-the-top violent and disparaging language he leveled at a female team mate, comedian Lisa Lampanelli. In the eyes of Trump, however, Lou clinched his demise not by being an unprofessional boor, but by being…honest.

“Who do you think had the better commercial?” Trump asked the former green alter-ego of the late Bill Bixby. It sure didn’t sound like a trick question. Ferrigno responded that the winning team’s commercial was better, an eminently reasonable response given that he and the other two celebrities on the hot seat were there because the commercial they had crafted had been judged as inferior. This, however, was seen by The Donald as a rank betrayal. He fired Lou, in part for his slug-like performance on the assigned task, but mostly, he said, for Ferrigno’s “great disloyalty” to his team.

Whaa? Continue reading

Presenting 2012’s “Most Ethical Companies”

The World’s Most Ethical (WME) Companies designation recognizes companies that truly go beyond making statements about doing business “ethically” and translate those words into action. WME honorees not only promote ethical business standards and practices internally, they exceed legal compliance minimums and shape future industry standards by introducing best practices today.

Ethisphere, which recognizes corporations that set a good example for ethical business practices internally and in their business dealings, puts out an annual list of its “World’s Most Ethical Companies.” This year a record 145 companies, including more than three dozen industries, from aerospace to wind power, made the list. Ethisphere notes that since the list’s inception, more than 20 companies have made the list all six years including, including Aflac, American Express, Fluor, General Electric, Milliken & Company, Patagonia, Rabobank and Starbucks, among others.

You can read the list of 2012 honorees here.

(Thanks to Ira Levy for the link.)