Ethical vs Legal, and Empathetic Auditing?

Jerry Weintraub’s autobiography When I Stop Talking You’ll Know I’m Dead is the story of how he became one of the great entertainment power-brokers - agent, producer, promoter, etc – of our time. Two of the stories he tells (and the book is, if nothing else, a collection of incredible stories), when viewed together, speak to an interesting attribute of not only Mr. Weintraub but, I would argue, an interesting attribute of us all. 

Weintraub tells of how, early in his career, he was confronted by two gentlemen who explained “You’re in Brooklyn. Brooklyn is our neighborhood. We get a piece of whatever happens in our neighborhood.” Weintraub was not thrilled with the turn of events and eventually wound up speaking with “the boss of one of the New York crime families.” Weintraub explained he did not want to be involved with the gentlemen and, when asked why, replied, “I don’t want to be involved in anything illegal.” The crime boss eventually said, “I’m going to tell these guys not to bother you. But, in return, you have to promise me something: You’re never going to do anything illegal.” Weintraub promised. The story then moves forward to a situation where the crime boss called him later to explain a troubling situation. It seems Weintraub was about to be involved in a partnership that would have, unknowingly to him, resulted in being part of an illegal activity. Weintraub, in response to his promise and his desire to not be involved in illegalities, pulled out of it.
 
A nice story of wonderfulness.
 
Later in the book (from later in his career), he tells the story of working in Chicago. He wanted to strike a deal to use Chicago Stadium for concerts. To have a meeting with the individual in charge of the stadium, he was told he would have to work with “Daley’s people.” (Starting to get an inkling where this is going?) Weintraub met the person that could get him the contact he needed. This person said, “I’m going to get up and go [to] the bathroom. And while I’m in the bathroom, you’re going to put something in my jacket.” Weintraub does not indicate exactly what that something is, but the reader can quickly infer it was not a batch of chocolate-chip cookies.  The jacket was treated as it needed to be treated, and Weintraub was able to move to the next layer of the “bureaucracy”.
 
Compare and contrast. He has promised to do nothing illegal so he can keep from paying a percentage to the locals. However, bribes do not seem to be a part of this definition of “illegal”. Illegal/ethical – where is the line drawn?
 
(Before I go on, I want to make two quick points. First, I may be drawing the wrong conclusions from these two stories; I may have misconstrued what was actually occurring [and, in my retelling of the stories, put my own slant on the situations.] Second, if I am correct in my interpretation, I defy any of us to write about our lives and not reveal similar seeming hypocrisies. Where were we?)
 
I am willing to bet that each of us has run into this situation – in audits, in investigations, in our own private lives. And rather than rail against those who make seemingly incorrect distinctions, rather than complain about those who have apparent conflicts in their decision-making, rather than be the one in the glass audit department throwing the “we must report this” stones, I want to make two points under a new category I’m calling Empathetic Auditing. 
 
1) It should not be surprising how easily a normally perfectly-sighted individual cannot see the ethical forest for the situational trees.  It is not that they are consciously choosing the wrong path; rather the misjudgment makes perfect sense based on their current understanding of the situation. Particularly as an auditor, it is very easy for us to view events after they’ve happened and report (with a “tsk, tsk”) that ethics were violated.  It is important to remember that people involved in activities are working with the blinders of the moment, and perfect decisions are not always made with those blinders in place.
 
2) You never know what you will do until you are in a situation yourself.  I find it interesting how many auditors smugly comment on the sins and foibles of their auditees as if the auditors have lived perfect lives. I’m not saying we have all gone out and committed fraud. But I will say, let he who is without condition, criteria, and cause throw the first audit finding.
 
Someday I’ll tell you the story of the National Finals Rodeo.  But, for right now, I’ve mixed enough metaphors and I’d be more interested in hearing the stories you have.  What is the most flagrant instance of ethics vs. legal you’ve seen?  When has the line blurred so much you weren’t sure if someone had been wrong or right? What can you share when it comes to this grand discussion of ethics?

Posted on Jan 13, 2011 by Mike Jacka

Share This Article:    

Leave a Reply