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Executives on Trial? Op-Ed April 6, 2005

James F. Bracher

New York's Attorney General, Eliot Spitzer, in his April 5, 2005, Wall Street Journal op-ed, suggests that only law enforcement works to restore confidence in the "integrity-challenged" system beset by scandals. His perspective is rigid, one-dimensional and potentially destructive of the society he intends to defend. The time has come for accountability - at all levels and across many walks of life, even beyond the business community. Certain behaviors are no longer acceptable, legal or appropriate. Winking is not the right response when describing the inappropriateness of sexual harassment issues. Those all-too-common knowing nods regarding "insider deal-making" are being carefully policed along with self-serving behaviors that take unfair advantage of others. Society is speaking. Enron and WorldCom have become business clichés for big shots living the high life while cheating hard working employees and uninformed investors. And where is this leading us? Enforcement of laws is long over-due.

According to Landon Thomas, Jr. of the New York Times, in his story On Wall Street, a Rise in Dismissals over Ethics, March 29, 2005, the business environment is changing. "With regulatory scrutiny heightened, there has been a wave of firings as corporations move to stop perceived breaches of ethics." Thomas then quotes Ira Lee Sorkin, a senior white-collar crime lawyer, who describes the current business environment as "a regulatory frenzy. Corporations are acting out of fear and they don't want to take a chance that employees did something wrong under their watch, so they are basically cleaning house. Someone has to say enough."

Enough! Enough! We must not forget that in New England, in the Colonial Period "witch hunts" saw innocent people "burned at the stake" in the name of religious purity. In the 1950's, all across the United States of America, "McCarthyism" was a terrifying term for hate-mongering and a rush-to-judgment approach that destroyed careers, families and lives, often abusing the very rights and freedoms it purported to support. Are we heading down the very same pathway again? Litmus tests are being drawn up in such rigid ways disqualifying just about anyone "those designing the tests" might choose to exclude, including public servants, religious leaders, business people, and the like. If only "perfect" people were salvageable, who would be left to do anything?

Mistakes are inevitable. However, a broken trust does not need to remain forever. Leaders across society need to face the real issues: credibility and integrity. The current "in thing" - at least on Wall Street - of terminating folks who are even "perceived" to be involved in a breach of ethics is irresponsible and destructive. Presuming guilt is not a part of the justice system of the United States, presuming innocence is. Rushing to create "photo ops" of these accused may make great theater, but it does little to restore confidence in the entire structure of our society.

Standards and behaviors seem to be improving. Over-reacting and operating out of fear will discourage courage and encourage cowardice. Whistle blowers are prevailing. Crooks are serving time. It is time to build constructive relationships, across the board. Integrity throughout the economic system will emerge when relationships are rebuilt, one imperfect step at a time. Human beings make mistakes and they can fix them. Let's try trust, again not forgetting to monitor, one another, all along the way.

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