Shades of Gray


Are we too quick to diagnose corruption?

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Are we too quick to diagnose corruption?

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The resignation in February of former governor John Kitzhaber was swift and shocking. But Kitzhaber, who was forced out of government following allegations his fiancée, Cylvia Hayes, violated ethics rules, is in good company: He is one of several high-profile governors and public officials to be toppled recently by allegations of unethical behavior.

Former Virginia governor Robert McDonnell was sentenced to two years in prison in January after accepting favors from a vitamin company CEO in exchange for gifts and loans; New York state assembly speaker Sheldon Silver was arrested on corruption charges at the beginning of this year; New Jersey governor Chris Christie is facing allegations he was behind a plan in September 2013 to cause a traffic jam leading up to the George Washington Bridge in Fort Lee, New York, to retaliate against a political opponent.

{pullquote}If we expect people to play fair within the system, it is reasonable to play fair when people do something questionable.    {/pullquote}

The spate of high-profile ethics and corruption scandals suggests an epidemic of corruption in local and national government — a banality of evil, as it were. But the wide range of activities and behaviors labeled “corrupt” also raises a different set of questions: about how to define ethical behavior in government and whether we conflate corruption with violations of propriety, poor judgment or poor administration.

Does the zealousness to condemn all forms of behavior as equally “bad” distract us from serious political malfeasance, such as bribery or extortion or behind-the-scenes influence of corporate money over elections? Or is zero tolerance for unethical behavior the key to democratic and accountable government?

Oregon Business asked several academics and business people to weigh in on the issue.

Suspicion of government is deeply ingrained in American culture, and it is commonplace to think of all politicians as corrupt. As that skepticism increases, the boundaries between different kinds of ethical lapses are blurring. “Trust in government in America is so low right now that a governor can’t do something now that he or she might have been able to do thirty years ago,” says William Curtis, associate professor of political science at the University of Portland.

There is no shortage of reasons why Americans are skeptical of public leaders. Legislative proposals to tackle important issues have stalled because of the partisan stalemate that presides in Congress. The use of corporate money — much of it hidden from public view — to influence elections has also soured citizens on government leadership.

A traffic-driven 24-hour news cycle is another reason we may be quicker to conflate different kinds of ethical lapses. Kitzhaber famously blamed the media for trying and convicting him before due process — state and federal investigations — had run its course. Others share his view.

 “My greatest frustration as a citizen and bystander of what happened to Kitzhaber is not whether or not [he] did anything wrong,” says Brian Forrester, CEO of BuddyUp, an educational software startup, “It is the fact that regardless of whether he did anything wrong, he was tried and executed by the media, not by the systems we have put in place to handle these kinds of things.” (The Oregonian called for the former governor to resign in an opinion piece blasting his credibility. Shortly afterwards several members of Kitzhaber’s own Democratic party turned against him.)

The media plays a critical role as a government watchdog. But reporters also have a responsibility to reflect on the nuances of ethical lapses, says Carolynn Duncan, founder and general partner of the NorthWest Social Venture Fund. “Any time there is an agenda or opinion that is branded as fact, it is a slippery slope.”

According to a
2014 CNN/ORC
international poll,


of Americans say the
government can be
trusted to do what is
right always or most of
the time, with more than
three-quarters saying
only some of the time.

One in 10

say they never trust
the government. 

The frenzy that often accompanies reports of corrupt public officials leads people to condemn a person accused of corruption without considering the events or situations that led up to the unethical actions; Keith Leavitt, assistant professor, Oregon State University College of Business, says: “Part of the problem is when we see something that is potentially corrupt behavior, or unethical behavior from an organization, we are trying to see if there is an evil or maligned person deliberately making that decision.”

Cylvia Hayes’ use of the governor’s office to advance her clean energy consulting business — a story of 94,000 emails that has unfolded in news outlets as a kind of modern day Charles Dickens serial novel — may fit the narrative mold. “But a lot of unethical behavior in organizations happens organically and from the bottom up,” says Leavitt. Organizations often fail to pay attention to ethical issues and then are caught off guard when the media or a whistleblower calls attention to potential wrongdoing.

For an action to be corrupt, there has to be clear intent on the part of the individual. But as Leavitt points out, it is often the case that unethical behavior springs from actions where the individual had little control or awareness over the situation. In these cases, it is more appropriate to use terms such as poor government or misconduct.

“Misadministration is a good term to think about because there is a lot more misadministration going on than blatant corruption. Differentiating between the two is really important,” says Forrester. 

Ryan Deckert, president of the Oregon Business Association, echoes that idea. Although the media often has a hard time seeing the nuances of scandals, he says, “you see examples of behaviors that fall maybe into poor judgment or into the area of severely poor judgment whether it be in the business community, in labor, or in government.”

 For a public official to take money for his or her own gain, such as in the case of the former Virginia governor, is an obvious act of corruption. But is the bridge scandal that tainted the New Jersey governorship equivalent to the email brouhaha that dogs Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid? And can both be lumped into the same category as the Cylvia Hayes affair?

Government officials are stewards of public resources and should be held to the highest standard of ethical behavior. Gov. Kate Brown’s new ethics rules will help ensure that happens. But even in politics, the world is not black and white. And as distrust in government reaches perhaps an all time high, it behooves us to remember the threat to democracy now comes from all sides.

When we are quick to label a public official as corrupt, we risk ignoring the potential for remediation or due process, says Leavitt. “If we expect people to play fair within the system, it is reasonable to play fair when people do something questionable.”

Business ethics

Standards of ethics are different in business compared with government because business people do not have the added layer of stewardship over public resources. As Carolynn Duncan, founder of the NorthWest Social Venture Fund, points out, nobody would call it unethical to spend on a gift for a client in the business world. She prefers the term misconduct to describe unethical behavior in business because corruption is a politicized term. 

Should a CEO or the corporation be held responsible for unethical behavior? “Bottom line is any person has to be responsible for their behavior,” Duncan says. “The board has to hold the CEO accountable, but the CEO often sets 
parameters for ethical values. There is a tension there.” 

Dick Clark, chair of the Portland Rotary Club’s Ethics in Business Committee, says there is an “objective and subjective” balance in business ethics. “While oftentimes challenging to grasp, it is important to keep searching and asking the right questions.” Despite the subjective element, Clark doesn’t see the need to distinguish between different shades of unethical behavior. “I think correct behavior is somewhat black and white. So it is hard to say there are shades of it. It is almost like telling the truth. There are no shades of truth.”

For others, the situation is more nuanced. Ryan Deckert, president of the Oregon Business Association, says there are “shades of gray” in ethics. But as someone who spent six years as an Oregon state senator before joining the business community, Deckert does not see much difference in the nature of corruption in business versus government. “If Bernie Madoff takes money and lies to his clients, it is not much different than some political representatives that have served time in jail in Oregon for doing something similar – taking money and lying about it.” 

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