Netflix’s “The Laundromat” And Money Laundering Ethics

Now streaming on Netflix, “The Laundromat” is an entertaining and flamboyant  examination of the phenomenon and roots of international money laundering, brought to us by director Steven Soderbergh (“Erin Brockovich,” “Traffic”) using a screenplay by Scott Z. Burns. The often tongue in cheek film is narrated by actors Gary Oldman and Antonio Bandaras playing lawyers Jürgen Mossack and Ramón Fonseca , whose now defunct firm set up tax shelters and shell corporations for the rich, corrupt and criminal  all over the world. Their empire was shattered by the Panama Papers data dump in 2016.

The film’s tone veers from smug to blunt as it focuses on three adaptations of true stories involving  Mossack Fonseca clients, all narrated by the excuse- and rationalization-spouting lawyers, the real life versions of which tried to sue to halt the production.

“The Panama Papers” as they are now called consisted of 11.5 million leaked documents that detailed financial and attorney–client information for more than 214,488 offshore entities, many of which were legal, but that supported fraudulent schemes and other crimes.  The documents were the property of  Mossack Fonseca. Even now, the fall-out from the release of the documents is unclear, in large part because so many of them involve attorney-client privilege, and the rules and laws governing their legal handling are spread over many nations, laws and ethics rules. The leak itself was a crime, and the hacker responsible, who goes by the name of “John Doe,” has never been identified.

This is an international ethics train wreck, and one that is so complicated that I didn’t cover it in 2016. That was ethics commentary malpractice on my part, I think. It was the biggest ethics story of the year, even if it is still largely unresolved.

Whether the law firm itself broke any laws is still a matter of debate. As Oldman and Bandaras constantly remind us, Mossack Fonseca set up arguably legal structures, and, they claim, didn’t know or care how they would be used. This is still a gray area of legal ethics in the U.S., one that was highlighted when “60 Minutes” broadcast its Global Witness episode in 2016 . Partners in eleven large Manhattan  law firms were caught on hidden cameras  exploring possible ways to represent an individual posing as the agent of an “African despot” seeking ways to launder millions of dollars. The ethics rules say that a lawyer may not knowingly assist a client in a crime or fraud, but contrived ignorance can be an effective, if unethical, device for lawyers to avoid  accountability when representing  unsavory (but profitable) clients.  Remember, Enron’s law firm avoided any sanctions, while the company’s accounting firm, Arthur Anderson, was prosecuted and destroyed.

No, Ethics Alarms didn’t cover the Global Witness scandal either, though I have talked about it in legal ethics seminars ever since. Clearly, money laundering has not had proper priority here. Again, my fault. I’ll do better. Continue reading

An Ethics Movie Review: “The Mule”

I was not eager to see “The Mule,” for many reasons. Stories in which the protagonist is a drug dealer don’t interest me at all; I avoided “Breaking Bad” and “Weeds” for the same reason. The popular culture, especially Hollywood, played a major role in breaking down society’s consensus disapproval of recreational drug use, and I hope they are proud of all the harm they have caused, and the greater harm yet to come.

Then there is the fact that seeing Clint Eastwood looking like the Cryptkeeper (from HBO’s “Tales of the Crypt”) depresses me. I remember Clint from his “Rawhide” days, and seeing his ruined beauty makes me feel like I’m watching the villain rot at the end of “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” when he “chooses poorly,” but for real. I admired Cary Grant’s decision to stop making movies when he began to stop looking like Cary Grant, and Marlene Dietrich’s determination not to appear in public so that people would remember her as one of Hollywood’s great beauties, and not as an old lady.

But as often in the case, having limited options in a hotel made Eastwood’s latest directorial and performing effort the best of a bad group of entertainment choices. The film is based on the  true story of a ninety-year-old man (Clint isn’t quite that old, but he looks it)  who became a drug mule, transporting  cocaine for a  Mexican drug cartel. The film has an excellent supporting cast including Bradley Cooper, Laurence Fishburne, Dianne Wiest and Andy Garcia. (who also looks like hell), though none of them have much to do except be props for Clint’s star turn.

To do as little spoiling as possible, I’ll just say that the story involves an aging—aged—narcissist who has neglected his family outrageously, falls into a lucrative gig transporting drugs because he loves to drive, has never had a ticket, and is unlikely to attract attention, and suddenly decides to make the needs of his family a priority over work for the first time in his life, getting him arrested and almost getting him killed.

Clint still has his screen presence and charm, which is fortunate, because the central character, Earl Stone, is a selfish jerk. His toxic personal habits don’t seem so bad when the victims are  drug smugglers, but when, early in the movie, he skips his daughter’s wedding without warning because he’d rather be at a sales convention partying with his colleagues, it is hard to care what happens to him.

We quickly learn that this betrayal was characteristic of Earl, and that he rationalizes them all, arguing that he was absent from his family to provide for them, and is blameless. It’s clearly a lie: his family bores him, and he does exactly what he wants to do, always. Sometimes he helps people and is randomly kind, as when we see him pause in one of his drug runs to help a couple stranded on the road. Other times, he doesn’t give a damn.

When a family argument breaks out as he attempts to attend his grand-daughter’s bridal shower, a guest overhears that Earl has lost his home and business (that’s really why he showed up at his granddaughter’s place, that and the fact that she was the only family member still on speaking terms with him) and gives him a phone number. These people will pay him well just for driving, Earl is told. Continue reading

Ethics And The Joker’s Moustache

“The Joker,” opening this week and presenting Joaquin Phoenix’s portrayal of Batman’s arch-enemy as fitting the classic mass-shooter profile, has provoked all sorts of ethics- related debates. Is it responsible to release a film that may risk triggering the psychopathic loaners with access to guns we all know lurk in the shadows? Is the studio risking another Aurora-style theater shooting? Should such films be boycotted? Regulated?

These debates, which are retreads of the same old refrains the nation has been tortured by since dime novels through Warner Brothers gangster movies, EC comics, “The Untouchables” TV series, the Legion of Decency’s reign, Sam Peckinpah films and “A Clockwork Orange,” are all appeals to censorship using “Think of the Children!” rationalizations, and are essentially attacks on free speech. The contrived debate is alarming but not difficult to call: the would-be censors are wrong, motivated by emotion, and that’s that.

No, the really interesting ethics debate the new movie has revived is another old one: Was it ethical for actor Cesar Romero to keep his moustache when he played the Joker?

Cesar  Romero  (February 15, 1907 – January 1, 1994) is now largely forgotten, but he was a familiar presence in films, radio, and television for almost 60 years. Sort of a Grade B Riccardo Montalban, Romero had a rather narrow range, with his portrayal of dashing Latin lovers, historical figures in costume dramas, and characters in light  comedies all looking and behaving similarly. Romero’s trademark was his moustache, especially in the post-Errol Flynn era when leading men seldom wore them.

When the 1966 camp TV show Batman became a brief sensation in 1966, the casting of Romero as the Joker was a shock. He had never played any role remotely like it, nor was broad, silly comedy his typical milieu. Most shocking of all, when the Joker finally made his appearance on the show  it was obvious that Romero hadn’t shaved his upper lip. Reportedly the actor refused to eliminate  his moustache for the role, and so the supervillain’s white face makeup was thickly smeared over it throughout the series’ three-year run and for Romero’s co-starring appearance in the 1966 film. Continue reading

Late Start Morning Ethics Warm-Up, 10/5/19: Dissing Tony Williams, and An Impeachment Headache

I don’t care: Whenever I get up on Saturday, it’s morning to me.

1. Those fake recordings...I have almost gotten used to the fake versions of famous songs an by iconic artists that show up as background in TV shows and movies, but I still resent them. They are lies, in essence, designed to fool less discriminating and knowledgeable audience members. Many people aren’t even aware of the practice, which is virtually routine, of long-standing, and considered standard practice. A friend of mine , a musician/ actor with a gift for mimicry, once explained the whole industry supported by these frauds, which exist because it is cheaper to record a faux version of a famous recording than to pay to use the real thing in a movie.

For some reason, however, the last 24 hours forced me to hear some unusually obnoxious examples. I just heard fake Roy Orbison, for instance. Nobody sounds like Roy Orbison. I heard fake versions of The Platters’ immortal and inimitable Tony Williams twice, and that really ticks me off. Williams, whose rendition of “Only You” may be my favorite male vocal ever, had a freak voice, and younger listeners who hear inferior versions of his “Twilight Time,” “The Great Pretender,” and “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” are tragically misled. It is an insult to Williams’ memory and legacy to represent through deceptive imitations that he wasn’t as great as he really was.

Anytime you hear a song playing behind a scene, listen closely. I just heard Fake Any Williams, a really bad imitation. Interestingly, I have noticed that there are some departed artists that nobody dares to imitate. Bing Crosby, for example, is always the real Bing (although I have heard several fake Frank Sinatras). They don’t try to fool anyone with fake Judy Garlands, either; I haven’t heard a fake Freddie Mercury, and hope I never do.  But it’s unethical to fake anyone without being transparent about it..

Especially Tony Williams.

2. Still looking for some partners…in the Ethics Alarms Impeachment Project. I have now heard from three volunteers, and I’m grateful…a few more would be ideal. Of course, when and if the website gets published, I expect it will be easier to interest active participants.

The idea is to provide an easily accessible way for “low-information voters” and others to follow this dangerous and depressing drama while having access to the essential materials, facts, context and legitimate analysis without being confused by spin, selective reporting, misinformation and partisan agendas. Here’s an example of information that is relevant to the Democratic impeachment efforts that has hardly been reported at all, because the news media overwhelmingly wants to see the President of The United States impeached, and has made that objective clear to most objective observers for more than three years.

Six months ago, the NY Daily News revealed that Congressman Jerrold Nadler (D-NY)received at least $65,000 in campaign donations “from the music industry and other intellectual property businesses that he oversees as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.” That was the end of the story; even the Daily News never followed up. Nadler also spent about $30K to host a Grammy Awards gala in LA in February during the Grammy Awards, giving him access to music  executives for more campaign donations.  Those execs, meanwhile, had their companies pony up $5,000 a ticket to attend the party. This is influence peddling, of course. It’s legal, because Congress won’t criminalize sleazy politics.  TechDirt called it soft corruption:

“These are the kinds of practices that are most likely legal, and possibly even common among the political class, but which absolutely stink of corruption to the average American. And that’s a huge problem, not just because of the general ethical questions raised by such soft corruption, but because it creates a cynical American public that does not trust politicians to adequately represent their interests.”

Nadler’s conduct is relevant to the impeachment efforts because it reveals the hypocrisy behind Democratic efforts to impeach President Trump for political practices that are neither illegal nor unusual while making pious pronouncements that belie their own behavior. The purely political assault on the 2016 Presidential election results is obscured by the media’s efforts to hide the true character and motives of the President’s foes, including the journalists and editors themselves.

3. Here’s another example...My New York Times this morning is dominated by yellow-highlighted text messages between the Ukraine’s ambassador with U.S. Ambassador Volker, and a two-column width headline, “Another Official Considers Filing a Report On Ukraine.” When have you ever seen front page news about an anonymous figure “considering” something? That’s not fact, that’s not news, it is entirely prejudicial spin intended to create distrust and suspicion.

Meanwhile, the Times could have made legitimately made the front page stories about  last week’s  Congressional testimony from Ambassador Kurt Volker, who served for two years as the top U.S. diplomatic envoy to Ukraine, which directly contradicts the pro-impeachment narrative . He testified, under oath, that he was never aware of and never took part in any effort to push the Ukrainian government to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden or his son Hunter, and stressed that the interactions between Giuliani and Ukrainian officials were facilitated not to find “dirt” on Biden, but to address concerns that the incoming Ukrainian government would not be able to get a handle on corruption within the country. The Federalist obtained the full transcript of the testimony, which certainly could have been revealed by the Times as well, if it wanted to.

More later-I have a terrible headache that has lingered for two days, and I can’t tell if it’s this crap or a brain tumor. Coffee, Tylenol, and the Twins beating the Yankees should help.

Comment Of The Day: “A Trigger Warning About A Trigger Warning: Audiences Should Walk Out Of The Movie Theater When This Appears”

“For May wol have no slogardie a-night.
The seson priketh every gentil herte,
And maketh him out of his slepe to sterte.”

  Now who can argue with that?  The passage is from a story Geoffrey Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales,” “The Knightes Tale,” the English  classic written between 1387 and 1400. I did not expect a substantive comment regarding Chaucer to follow an Ethics Alarms post (Chaucer has been mentioned in passing here in the context of the evolution of the English language), but there it was: Michael West revealed his fascinating discovery that Chaucer may have been a pioneer in more than just English literature. Michael’s Comment of the Day is unusual in another way besides its erudition. It was a comment on a post that is nearly two years old. It concerned the jaw-dropping warning that preceded the “Darkest Hour,” the acclaimed film about the wartime heroism and brilliance of  Winston Churchill:

“The depictions of tobacco smoking contained in this film are based solely on artistic consideration and are not intended to promote tobacco consumption. The surgeon general has determined that there are serious health risks associated with smoking and with secondhand smoke.”

I wrote at the time,

Winston Churchill, you see, smoked cigars. Actually he chain-smoked them, and inhaled. They were among his trademarks. Any adult who doesn’t know that should not have graduated from high school. Interestingly, shooting and bombing people are also serious health risks, so I don’t know why it wasn’t noted that the depictions of warfare contained in this film are based solely on artistic consideration.”

Whatever “based solely on artistic consideration” is supposed to mean…

Of course, showing Churchill smoking cigars is not an “artistic consideration,” but one of historical accuracy and integrity. Does this mean that there was really a debate in the studio about whether or not Churchill should be shown smoking, so as not to trigger good little progressive totalitarians, who believe in changing the past for the greater good of the present? I wonder if they considered making Winston, who was fat, appear slim and ripped, since the surgeon general has determined that there are serious health risks associated with obesity and over-eating. I don’t see why they wouldn’t, if they felt that showing people smoking in the 1930s, when almost everyone smoked,  might be interpreted as promoting smoking today.  Churchill also drank like Bluto in “Animal House.” Why no warning about that? Uh-oh—does this mean that the film, for artistic considerations, only shows Winston sipping soda water and prune juice?

That warning says to me, “We, your Hollywood moral exemplars, think you are an ignorant, illiterate  dummy who can’t tell the difference between a historical drama and a tobacco commercial. We also support the government’s belief that it should impose on every aspect of your life, including your entertainment, to protect you from yourself.”

I had, mercifully, completely forgotten about that asinine warning, and now I’m ticked off all over again. Gee, thanks, Michael, for reminding me.

Here is Michael West’s Comment of the Day on the post, “A Trigger Warning About A Trigger Warning: Audiences Should Walk Out Of The Movie Theater When This Appears”... Continue reading

Directed Verdict Ethics In The The Movies: “Tom Horn” And “To Kill A Mockingbird”

Once again, as I watched the film version of “To Kill A Mockingbird” for the 50th time, I was bothered by the fact that Atticus never asked for a directed verdict, and the kindly, seemingly fair-minded judge never declared one.

A directed verdict is also known as a judgment as a matter of law or JMOL. It means that one side or the other has failed to meet a minimum burden of proof, and is usually declared by a judge  after is a motion made by a party, during trial, claiming the opposing party has presented insufficient evidence to reasonably support its case.  A directed verdict  is similar to judgment on the pleadings and summary judgment. Judgment on the pleadings is  made after pleadings and before discovery; summary judgment occurs after discovery but before trial.

A directed verdict occurs during the trial, and a judge can also render one spontaneously, without a motion. The motion can even  be made after a verdict is returned by a jury, where such a motion is technically for a “renewed” directed verdict, but commonly referred to as judgment notwithstanding the verdict.  In a civil trial, a party must have moved for a directed verdict before the jury reports out its decision. In a criminal trial, as in the fictional Tom Robinson case, there is no such requirement. The court may set aside a guilty verdict and enter an acquittal in the interests of justice.  A criminal defendant is not required to move for a judgment of acquittal before the court submits the case to the jury for the verdict to be overturned. A verdict of not guilty can never be overturned.

In “To Kill A Mockingbird,” black defendant Tom Robinson is convicted of rape despite the primary prosecution witness, the alleged victim, contradicting her own testimony at several points, and despite strong evidence that the beating she claimed was part of the sexual assault was shown to be delivered by a right-handed man—like her spectacularly vicious and creepy father—when the defendant couldn’t use his right hand at all. Atticus Finch never moves for a directed verdict, and the judge never declares one, though he presides over the fiasco of a trial with a disgusted look throughout. Continue reading

Afternoon Ethics Flotsam And Jetsam, 9/16/2019: Ethics Movies, Clowns And Harvard Professors

…As I prep for a CLE road trip…

1. I finally saw “Doubt,” the film adaptation of the John Patrick Shanley stage drama about a parish priest suspected of child abuse. It’s an ethics film, and unlike many ethics films, made a profit at the box office.

I had seen the play on stage, and found it didactic and contrived; the film did not, I’m sure because the cast was so excellent. Meryl Streep, Viola Davis and Phillip Seymour Hoffman as the priest were all wonderful, especially Davis, whose single scene in which she runs down a series of desperate arguments and rationalizations to justify allowing her son to be molested—maybe—is an ethics cornucopia. Unlike the stage production I saw, the movie benefits by having its protagonists appear less sympathetic than its apparent villain.

This goes on the ethics movie list, which is due for an update.

2.  Yet another ethics movie of more recent vintage is 2019’s “The Challenger Disaster,” a fictionalized recounting of how the decision was made to allow the doomed space shuttle to launch despite the warnings of Morton Thiokol engineers.  I wrote about this depressing ethics case study here , in a tribute to the primary Cassandra in the tragedy, Roger Boisjoly, and here,  about his troubled colleague, Bob Ebeling. The film’s hero appears to be an amalgam of the two. Here is an excerpt from a review on The Engineering Ethics Blog:

Even if you are pretty familiar with the basics of the story, as I was, the film is almost agonizing to watch as the launch time draws closer….The focus is always on Adam [the fictional hybrid of the engineers opposing the launch]: his belief going in that the truth is always a sufficient argument (it’s not, as it turns out), his doubts that he’s done enough to stop the launch, and his retrospective descriptions of what went on in the hours leading up to the launch…. the generally underlit atmosphere symbolizes Adam’s darkening mood as the critical conference call comes and goes, and the decision is made to launch. After Adam drives home that evening, he just sits out in the driveway in his car until his wife comes and gets into the seat beside him. …Later, during the  hearings that Adam and his fellow engineers attend, they come forward out of the audience and interrupt the proceedings after they hear a Morton-Thiokol manager lie about his knowledge of the seal problem. After the hearing, a sympathetic commission member finds Adam and reassures him that there are whistleblowing laws to protect him from repercussions of his testimony.

While it is never good to kick a man while he is down, I wish the film had taken time to show in more detail the intensity of the ostracism that forced the real-life Boisjoly to resign from Morton-Thiokol after his participation in the hearings made him persona non grata at work. … Boisjoly made a new career out of giving talks to engineering students about his experiences. …For a complex, historically accurate, and thought-provoking take on the Challenger disaster, I cannot think of a better medium than “The Challenger Disaster”  for conveying the seriousness of the emotion-laden decisions that have to be made at critical times. It is not a fun movie, but it’s a good one. And I hope it does well in video-on-demand release, because engineers need to see it.

Also lawyers, doctors, corporate executives, military officers, government officials, journalists, students… Continue reading