Ethics @ Work: The elephant in the room

No charitable explanation for cash donations; If it looks like a gift and quacks like a gift an indictment is likely.

Business ethics 88 (photo credit: )
Business ethics 88
(photo credit: )
Readers are wondering why I have been avoiding the "elephant in the room." A major public-sector scandal is breaking as new evidence against Prime Minister Ehud Olmert surfaces almost daily, so why isn't it being discussed in a column devoted to public-sector ethics? The answer is that expert commentary is needed to help resolve the gray areas of ethical conduct. I don't know what the facts of the case are, but it seems to me that a public servant accepting huge gifts of cash from foreign businessmen who do business in Israel is not a gray area but a clear breach of ethical norms. However, I will yield to public demand and discuss the background of the case, all the time reminding readers that the facts have not been clarified. What seems to be undisputed is that Olmert received large sums of money from (or as a conduit) American businessman Morris Talansky over a period of years. There are various explanations for the money: Banana republic theory Olmert's spokesmen claim that the money was given to cover campaign deficits. That explanation puts Olmert in the most favorable light, and the State of Israel in the least favorable light. Imagine if Obama or McCain were caught accepting envelopes full of cash, and then explaining it away as "only" campaign contributions from a Kuwaiti businessman. For years I have adamantly opposed the portrayal of Israel as a banana republic, and have striven to show the many ways in which we are squarely in the first world. But when it comes to campaign finance, I have to admit that the system is backwards and broken. Politicians on the Left and Right are constantly going abroad to get funds to bring their message to the Israeli voter. However, since this depressing reality affects all the major political parties, it would be enough to get Olmert off the hook legally - and ethically, to leave him in the kosher but smelly category. Even if it is proven that every penny went to cover campaign debts, it is ugly to get contributions in envelopes filled with cash. Kleptocracy theory The most severe accusation made against Olmert is that the money was given as a bribe. Technically speaking, a bribe requires a quid pro quo: the briber gives the politician something of value, and in return the politician uses his political influence on the giver's behalf. Legally, bribery is the most difficult to prove. You may be able to prove that money was given and that influence was used, but you still haven't shown bribery if there was no connection. Honest "crooked politicians" faithfully carry out what they were bribed to do (they "stay bought," as Simon Cameron put it); crooked "crooked politicians" take the money and run. But as long as there is an agreement it is bribery, even if the politician reneges on his corrupt commitment. Groupie theory This is the one Talansky has been selling and the papers, so far, have been buying. Talansky, the Israel-loving businessman (there is no reason to doubt this) is enamored of Olmert, the Israeli knight in shining armor, and showers him with presents. This scenario is definitely ethically challenged. Public servants are not supposed to accept presents; the law requires them to refuse them, turn them in, or as a last resort pay the government for them (this last is kind of meaningless in the case of cash donations). This law is partially a reaction to the difficulty of proving bribes; with the gift law you don't have the difficult hurdle of proving intent. Unfortunately, the authorities' record in enforcing this law has been spotty, as the recent State Comptroller's Report detailed. But it's also improving, as detailed in the same report. So if it looks like a gift and quacks like a gift an indictment is likely. What if Olmert, equally enamored of his American patron, showered him in turn with political favors? It's not bribery if there is no quid pro quo, but it is against the law for a public servant to use his influence with partiality on behalf of any individual, even if there is no recompense or even any influence. The crime goes by a variety of names. In Israel there are two main statutes: "breach of trust" and "misuse of the power of office." These can be hard to prove, as long if the public servant can make a reasonable case that his actions were in accordance with his own professional judgment. Ethically, a public servant is obligated to always act only in the public interest. Whatever explanation ends up being confirmed, if it is true that envelopes of cash were transferred to Olmert or his cronies there is no charitable explanation. Public officials are held to a high standard of probity by the law, but my belief is that the most decisive factor is the standard they are held to by the voter. [email protected] Asher Meir is research director at the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem (, an independent institute in the Jerusalem College of Technology.