When a man assumes a public trust, he should consider himself as public property.
It is amazing to see how good people doing good things are sometimes blinded to the consequences of a little exaggeration in order to make the numbers look better. What can be intended to generate trust can destroy it instantly. Recently, we have been treated to an example of this phenomena from a very unexpected source.
The Wall Street Journal and Bloomberg News report on the early returns of the U.S. Justice Department’s “Operation Broken Trust”. The irony of the program’s title is that it clearly was not intended to cultivate, but repair the public’s broken trust. Apparently, trust is in short supply indeed.
In August 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice announced its intention to bring swift justice to the recent perpetrators of financial fraud on investors, shareholders and the public. In order to restore public trust, the Attorney General and his staff committed to “sweep” through the halls of Ponzi schemes, fraudulent conveyances and disreputable investment practices and bring wrongdoers to a quick and sure reckoning.
On December 8, 2010, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced amazing results from this full frontal assault on financial fraud. Perhaps, “unbelievable results” was the better phrase. Reportedly, in just under four months the Justice Department instituted 231 cases against 343 criminal defendants, 64 arrests, 158 indictments or complaints, 104 convictions and 87 sentencings. In addition Holder indicated that the operation was responsible for 60 civil suits against 189 defendants. We could only hope justice moved so swiftly. As reported by Bloomberg’s Jonathon Weil, the numbers seemed too good to be true. In fact, they weren’t . . . true.
Bloomberg’s Weil looked more closely at the numbers and discovered all was not as reported. Instead, many of the cases cited had concluded long before Operation Broken Trust was instituted on August 16, 2010. Some cases have not begun at all. No support for the 60 civil suits could be provided. In short, a little exaggeration was intended to go a long way to build public trust. Isn’t that what got us here in the first place?
In contrast, Weil reports that there were thousands of convictions including high flyers like Charles Keating in response to the Savings and Loan scandals of the 1980’s and 1990’s. Quite a contrast in criminal enforcement efforts in the wake of a far more disastrous series of financial self-dealings seen in recent years.
Whether intentional or negligent, the impact on the public trust is no different. When statistics assume mythical status and “beating the numbers” becomes more important than truth, credibility will be sacrificed.
Following the debacles of Enron, Worldcom, Arthur Anderson and other high profile financial failures, Marianne Jennings wrote Seven Signs of Ethical Collapse: How to Spot Moral Meltdown in Companies . . . Before It’s Too Late. In her study of these cases of broken corporate trust, Jennings identifies the traits of companies on the brink of collapse. The number one sign is pressure to maintain the numbers. The other traits all evidence a culture of conflict aversion.
The companies, the individuals and the government agencies who break trust with the public depending on them to “do the right thing” are those who are afraid of the difficult conversations, unwilling to engage a culture of confrontation and unskilled in the power of consultation.
Perhaps, the U.S. Attorney’s General’s office is the victim of a culture similar to that of the high profile corporate financial failures and fraud they are sworn to protect us from. Or perhaps the U.S. Attorney General’s office is less concerned with factual accuracy than with a message that “sells” and afraid to encourage the difficult conversations that lead to trustworthy conduct in the public interest.
In the final analysis, is there really a difference?