Topic: Society

The Corrupters

The high-performance employee who defies the rules is every organization’s nightmare. But the problem flourishes because so many of us resolutely deny what history, logic, common sense and basic ethical principles teach: It is unfair to have double standards. Rules of conduct should be enforced reliably and consistently for all. Previous good acts do not justify or mitigate current wrongful ones. Bad conduct tolerated in organization stars becomes conduct that the average organization employee or member begins to accept and emulate.

Ultimately, the high-performance employee who get away with breaking professional standards, laws or rules does far more damage than his or her special talents and achievements can possibly justify. Still, the instinct to look the other way when a star misbehaves is strong in most of us. And that instinct opens the door, not only to more unethical conduct by others, but unapologetic unethical conduct

Super-lawyer Bill Lerach was the most feared class-action lawyer in America. He and his New York firm, Milberg Weiss, sued Enron, Tyco, WorldCom, and many others on behalf of aggrieved shareholders, making fortunes for them and millions of dollars of fees for himself. There was only one problem: Lerach was a crook. He pleaded guilty to charges that he had made illegal payments to plaintiffs he hand-picked to seed suits against corporations, in exchange for kickbacks from Lerach and his partners. Lerach pled guilty but was obviously unrepentant. Incredibly, some of the most distinguished lawyers in the profession wrote letters to the judge and the bar arguing that Lerach should get leniency. Among them: Ralph Nader, who reasoned that what Lerach did paled in comparison to the misdeeds of the evil corporations he brought down. Distinguished lawyers and even judges claimed that because Lerach had done far more good than bad, and his criminal and unethical practices should be punished with slaps on the wrist.

This is the classic rationalization employed by defenders of misbehaving stars and fallen heroes. With stars, the good outweighs the bad, so let’s ignore the bad. The same argument got famous lawyer Clarence Darrow off the hook when he was caught red-handed trying to bribe a jury. The man widely regarded then and now as America’s greatest lawyer reminded two juries that he had always fought for the powerless, and argued that his crime should be forgiven because of all the good he would do if allowed to continue practicing law. It worked! Darrow was acquitted despite overwhelming evidence. Not so Lerach, who has been sent to prison and will lose his law license. Still, the head of the University of Pittsburgh’s law school actually invited him to teach a course…on legal ethics! Meanwhile, Lerach has authored a couple of widely publicized op-ed pieces, proclaiming that his crimes and ethical violations were ultimately justifiable because they halted extreme instances of corporate greed and corruption. Do not doubt for a moment that his reasoning, bolstered by the character tributes of Nader and others, is fueling other attorneys’ self-righteous violations of the law and ethics rules in pursuit of “justice”…and wealth.

Last week, Alaska Republicans overwhelmingly voted to let Senator Ted Stevens run for another term as U.S. Senator, even as indictments loom and the evidence of Stevens’ personal enrichment from corporate supplicants becomes undeniable. Stevens is a hero to many Alaskans for his aggressive production of federal funds (a.k.a. “pork”) for local projects. But he is corrupt. A lawmaker, no matter how popular or successful, must not break the law. Every Alaskan who voted for Stevens made a statement that rules should apply to citizens in inverse proportion to their status and achievements, a philosophy that is undemocratic, unjust, illogical and wrong. The misbehaving star does more damage than the average citizen. He or she is a leader, a pace-setter, an exemplar and a role model. One doesn’t earn a right to break laws, rules and social norms through success and popularity, because there is no such right. The correct principle of accountability is exactly the opposite. Success and popularity impose an enhanced obligation to follow laws and rules.

In Boston, where the Red Sox are almost a religion, the beloved home team finally rid itself of the archetype of the misbehaving superstar, Manny Ramirez. Ramirez is one of the greatest hitters to ever play the game. He is funny, often charming, a true character, and he played a key role in the Sox’s long-delayed World Championship in 2004. He is, however, an arrested adolescent and a thoroughly unprofessional professional athlete who has often been openly defiant of team rules and protocol, assuming that his unique hitting skills would insulate him from reprisals. In this he has been, sadly, correct. While lesser players would have been fined, suspended, benched or released for similar behavior, Ramirez’s repeated episodes of losing concentration during games, goofing around on the field, playing hard only when the mood struck him and outright defiance acquired the status of an endearment among his fans, who adopted the motto “Let Manny be Manny!” With minor edits, it could stand for the entire class of tolerated and self-centered rogue stars in any field. “Let Stevens be Stevens!” “Let Lerach be Lerach!” “Let Clinton be Clinton!”

Finally, Manny was too much Manny, even for the enabling Red Sox. Upset about his contract situation (which paid him a paltry 20 million dollars a year), he begged out of key games with non-existent injuries. He started jogging to first even more slowly than usual. He openly sulked on the field, assaulted an elderly club official, and appeared to strike out intentionally as a pinch-hitter in a tight game against the hated Yankees. The team determined that he had to go, and banished him to Los Angeles, the city where David Begelman, as head of Columbia Pictures, pled guilty to embezzlement and was shortly thereafter hired by MGM to be its president. His movies made money, you see. “Let Begelman be Begelman.” Manny is home.

But Red Sox fans and bloggers were furious…not at Manny, but at the team’s management and the city’s sports media for endorsing the principle that an athlete is obligated to play hard for his team every second he’s on the field. Ramirez betrayed his team mates, insulted the sport, violated his contract and risked losing key games out of spite, but many fans still felt that the Red Sox should have endured it because he’s such a great hitter. Why, the Sox wouldn’t have won the World Series without him! And how can his bat be replaced in the line-up? The city, the team, and its fans should tolerate Manny being Manny, because he’s so good! And the next great hitter, now just a young and naïve minor leaguer, would have received the message loud and clear…just as John Edwards got the message from the defenders of Bill Clinton; just as Detroit Mayor Kwami Kilpatrick got the message from the loyal supporters of former D.C Mayor and convicted crack-user Marion Barry, and famed Boston Mayor and convicted felon James Michael Curley before him.

Manny…Stevens…Clinton…Lerach…Darrow…Begelman…Curley…Barry, and so many more, past, present and future. They are the Corruptors, the superstars to who we bestow immunity from standards of conduct that must apply to everyone if they are to be standards at all.

Will we ever learn that the Corruptors are not truly stars at all, but are self-obsessed traitors to their culture, organizations, and the people who admire them?

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