Topic: Business & Commercial

More Office Shakedown Ethics: Chipping in for Don Corleone

Considering the many forms of common unethical conduct that are good bets to spawn mention on the Scoreboard, one of the surest wagers can be put on office solicitations for “voluntary” contributions. Almost two years ago, when it was reported that several law firms had been asking their staff for political contributions to PACs, the article “Campaign Donation Shakedowns” observed:

…Everyone who has ever raised any money for charity, whether it involves soliciting huge checks for a college building fund or simply selling a box of Girl Scout cookies, knows that the effectiveness of a request for a donation depends on the relationship between the solicited and the solicitor. When the relationship is a strictly personal one, the request is likely to be ethical. But when there is a disparity of power, and one party feels that his or her career and livelihood may be at risk, the request for a donation becomes a shakedown. Law firms and businesses should have clear policies against supervisors soliciting those who report to them in any way. What solicitations there are should be general in nature, and whether an employee actually gives or not should be known only to the employee. How this is to be accomplished when the firm or company has a PAC is problematical, but it is also essential. Indeed, employees should not be permitted to publicize their contributions, because even that could create pressure on other employees… 

Predictably (given the, uh, elite nature of the Scoreboard’s readership), this was not read by the honchos at the National Institutes of Health, who recently decided to hit up their employees to pay for a farewell party for National Cancer Institute Director Andrew C. von Eschenbach, recently nominated by President Bush to head the Food and Drug Administration. Not only did the official invitation to the staff request payment of the $25 entrance fee for the May 17 event, it also solicited additional “contributions” to buy a gift for the outgoing boss. And it turns out that the Scoreboard isn’t the only thing the NIH folks don’t read (which does soothe the pain): they also apparently never read Title 5 CFR 2635.302a of the federal ethics code, which says that

“An employee may not: (1) Directly or indirectly, give a gift to or make a donation toward a gift for an official superior; or (2) Solicit a contribution from another employee for a gift to either his own or the other employee’s official superior.” 

The NIH donation solicitors are arguing that this doesn’t apply since the boss is leaving, but he is leaving only in theory at this point. He may not be confirmed, and even if he is, the process will take months. No, this is a shakedown too, like all such office donation drives. In fact, the Scoreboard didn’t go nearly far enough in designating the unethical zone for in-office contributions. If superiors are doing the asking, or superiors are going to be the beneficiaries of the donations, then the office solicitation is based on coercion rather than the “spirit of giving,” and is wrong.

The ethics verdict applies to those never-ending requests that employees “chip in” for a gift, if the gift is going to a superior rather than a peer or if a supervisor is doing passing the hat. The NIH wording that “donations are welcome” doesn’t avoid the problem. As long as someone knows that a person with power over them —let’s say, for illustration purposes, Don Corleone— will be aware of whether they gave a “voluntary” gift or not, giving the donation can never be truly voluntary. If donations are welcome, then there is also a reasonable implication that to contribute no donation would be unwelcome. Now the “Godfather” theme starts to echo in a solicited employee’s head, accompanied by visions of horse heads. The employee has been asked to give a gift to Don Corleone, and Don Corleone might be “disappointed” if he doesn’t get it. When the Don’s lieutenant asks you to pay tribute to the Don…if you want to, of course, only if you want to…you had better “want to.” It doesn’t pay to disappoint the Don.

Even if you don’t own a racehorse.

If a those who run a business, agency, department or office want to throw a party for a supervisor—in-coming, out-going, birthday celebrant or otherwise—let them arrange for the business, agency, department of office to pay for it. If they want a good turnout, they can make the party free of charge to employees and their guests. (It is true that even attendance at such parties is coerced to some extent, since non-attendance might be taken as a snub. However, it seems excessively rigid to declare all such parties unethical per se; they can have some workplace benefits, such as promoting morale. The Scoreboard is unwilling to make the unethical zone that encompassing.)

Just because office shakedowns by and for supervisors are nearly universal doesn’t mean that they are ethical. They aren’t…and U.S. government office shakedowns are prohibited by ethics regulations. It’s stressful enough working for the Don without having to worry about waking up with a horse head in your bed.

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