The Great Debate

Don’t go overboard banning military contractors

During the 15 years that I led the Air Force’s contractor responsibility and fraud missions, we debarred and suspended nearly 5,000 contractors – more than any other government agency. But what is far more important than the statistics is the greater protection we were able to provide the government by exercising these powers fairly and with balance, through the careful exercise of discretion. But that is coming to an end. We are now seeing a disturbing trend: new rules and outside pressures that would limit, and even eliminate, the ability of officials like me to exercise that discretion. Companies are being “blacklisted” – often for lengthy periods, sometimes automatically without due process, and often based solely upon the actions of a few rogue employees, with little consideration of whether such action is needed or fair.

The debarment regime is important for the government, and frankly makes sense. Most of us would not hire a plumber whom we knew did faulty work on a neighbor’s pipes. Given that, why would we put up with the serious fraud being committed today, particularly where it may affect our troops in multiple war zones? We can and should work only with responsible contractors. To do that, the government sets standards for contractor eligibility, and each agency has a suspension and debarment (S&D) official empowered to administer those standards. But in administering those standards those officials must always be mindful that the S&D system is not intended as a tool for punishment. While punishing fraud is important, it properly belongs in the criminal justice system, not with procuring agencies.

Not every act of misconduct should result in a company being blacklisted. Even the best companies have employees who cross legal and ethical lines. The important point is how a company’s leaders encourage proper conduct, identify and mitigate compliance risk, respond to the misconduct of their employees, and accept responsibility for good corporate governance. In most cases the government is not threatened by continuing to deal with a contractor whose employees engaged in isolated misconduct but whose management corrected the problem and is now acting responsibly. Regrettably, the current political atmosphere is straining this delicate balance in three notable respects. And there is a lot at stake: The U.S. Government is the world’s largest purchaser of goods and services, with approximately one out of every six dollars of federal government spending awarded to contractors.

First, some public officials are seeking to score political sound bites by making S&D mandatory – that is, imposing it automatically following a triggering event such as an allegation of wrongdoing, an indictment or a conviction.  The Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2012, for example, prohibits certain agencies, including the Department of Defense, from funding contracts for corporations convicted of any federal felony within the preceding 24 months, unless each agency that deals with that contractor makes a separate affirmative determination that such action is not necessary to protect that agency’s interests. Other proposed legislation would go even further to provide for the automatic suspension of a contractor when the government merely alleges fraud against a contractor in any civil or criminal proceeding related to a federal contract.

Such approaches are ill-advised. Automatic debarment prevents agency officials from proactively encouraging contractors to mitigate fraud risk prior to any misconduct occurring. And it also limits the government’s ability, after misconduct is discovered, to structure resolutions that influence and motivate positive corporate behavior – or to take no action at all.

Goldman anger is misplaced


The following is a guest post by Dana Radcliffe, a senior lecturer of business ethics at the Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University. The opinions expressed are his own.

The day after the Securities and Exchange Commission announced its $550 million settlement with Goldman Sachs, three noted business journalists appeared on a popular current affairs TV show. They concurred that the deal was a win for Goldman since the dollar amount was surprisingly low — equal to what the firm earns in just a few weeks. They felt the SEC’s case was weak and that, legally, Goldman had done nothing wrong and would have prevailed in court.

They also agreed that people were understandably appalled by some of the firm’s conduct in the subprime mortgage crisis in light of the flood of emails and other internal company documents released by Congress and Goldman. Grasping for a way to express what was repellent about such actions, one of the writers described them as “icky.” Another airily noted that they might be seen as wrong “in some ethical, moral, or philosophical sense.”

Refuting healthcare myths

David Magnus– David Magnus, Phd, is the director of the Stanford Center for Biomedical Ethics. The views expressed are his own. –

The public discussion of healthcare reform has been full of so many lies and myths that it is less a policy debate than bad theater.

Critics of reform (conservatives hoping to score political points and oppose Obama on anything; free market ideologues; those with threatened financial interests) have stooped to absurdity in their public pronouncements. One publication declared that severely disabled physicist Stephen Hawking would never get life saving medicine in a national health system, ignoring that Hawking is British—virtually all of his life saving treatments were done through their National Health Service.

from For the Record:

A is for abattoir; Z is for ZULU: All in the Handbook of Journalism

dean-150Dean Wright is Global Editor, Ethics, Innovation and News Standards. Any opinions are his own.

The first entry is abattoir (not abbatoir); the last is ZULU (a term used by Western military forces to mean GMT).

In between are 2,211 additional entries in the A-to-Z general style guide, part of the Reuters Handbook of Journalism, which we are now making available online. Also included in the handbook are sections on standards and values; a guide to operations; a sports style guide and a section of specialised guidance on such issues as personal investments by journalists, dealing with threats and complaints and reporting information found on the internet.

from For the Record:

Oscar special: Journalists on film

dean-150Dean Wright is Global Editor, Ethics, Innovation and News Standards. Any opinions are his own.

It’s Oscar time, and I’m again reminded of the debt Hollywood and journalists owe each other. Journalists supply Hollywood with great stories and Hollywood sometimes makes us look cool—or at least worth a couple of hours of time and the price of a ticket.

Put aside the fact that a number of Hollywood movies literally are made from the pages of journalism --“Saturday Night Fever,” “Dog Day Afternoon” and “Adaptation,” to name only a few, were all based on magazine stories. We journalists are also the very characters that Hollywood screenwriters sometimes love.

Ethics without regulation won’t cut it

– James Saft is a Reuters columnist. The opinions expressed are his own –

There has been a lot of talk in Davos about improving business ethics, and mercy knows there is certainly room for that. The past few years, like the end of most booms, have included plenty of fraud, self-dealing, and general all-purpose unethical behaviour.

James Saft Great Debate

I think it’s fantastic that business should seek to raise ethical standards. It’s good business, and not before time. I do understand that a lot of what happened was a social phenomenon, and that a change in mores can only help.

But frankly, a new emphasis on ethics is a sideshow, and among some who propose it, a diversionary tactic.

from For the Record:

Reporting in Gaza: Striving for fairness

dean-150Dean Wright is Global Editor, Ethics, Innovation and News Standards. Any opinions are his own.

Let’s say it up front: Almost all of you will find something in this column to take issue with.

That’s because the subject is the conflict in Gaza and perceptions of bias in reporting on it. News consumers detect media bias on any number of subjects, but there is nothing like the continuing Mideast conflict to bring out the passions of partisans on all sides.

from Reuters Editors:

Typewriters, Technology and Trust

dean-150Dean Wright is Global Editor, Ethics, Innovation and News Standards. Any opinions are his own.

A little girl in my family got a typewriter for Christmas.

Not a laptop. Nothing with a screen. A typewriter. The old-fashioned manual kind with a smeary ribbon and keys that stick.

Typewriters had pretty much gone the way of dodo birds, car tail fins and cigar-chomping editors who yell “Stop the Presses” quite some years before my granddaughter was born. But it was the typewriter used by the school-age, aspiring journalist in the movie “Kit Kittredge: An American Girl" that captivated her.

from Reuters Editors:

And the band played on: covering the economic crisis

dean-150I recently visited one of the most frightening sites on the Web—the place where I look at my shrinking retirement account.

As I calculated the investment loss since the steep decline in the markets began, and particularly since the collapse of Lehman Brothers in mid-September, some questions arose (in addition to: Will I ever be able to retire?).

--Did we in the media do our job in reporting on the run-up to the crisis?

--Now that an “official” recession has been declared in the U.S. and the depth of the crisis is becoming clearer around the world, are we in the media keeping things in perspective? Should we even be using words like “crisis” or “meltdown?”