In hot pursuit . . . catch me if you can!


Is ethical governance wishful thinking? A fantasy? Fiction? Maybe so but there is much evidence around the globe and across communities that ethical governance can and should be pursued. Unfortunately, all too often “hot pursuit” is set in motion by an ethical meltdown. And, the bell rings loud and clearly for compliance.

Consider Sarasota County on the Gulf Coast of Florida, a county that had, until recently, a sterling reputation for ethical governance.  The county has a model code of ethics, and the County Administrator expects his management team to be exemplars. There was, on the surface, every reason to feel comfortable with the ethical culture that pervades the 2,000 member workforce until . . . all h____ broke out! The local newspaper published a story about a 55 year old project manager in the public works department who accepted some $15,000 in cruises, hotel stays, gift cards and other kickbacks from a company whose contract he helped supervise.

As the scandal unfolded other misdeeds were alleged. County supervisors are reported to “piggyback” contracts—that is, opt for the same deal another local government had with a company thus allowing county administrators to avoid putting contracts out to bid. Procurement managers also practiced “change orders” where a contract is bid for specific terms only to be altered at points along the way, with extra work and pay added. The “change orders” practice would allow favored companies to come in at unrealistically low bids. Topping off the string of procurement problems was the fact that administrators and supervisors could use county issued credit cards to purchase products that would ordinarily be put out to be if they exceeded $10,000. In other words, credit cards could be used to “break” a payment into several parts whose sum would exceed the $10,000 limit.

The county administrator was shocked to learn of these practices.  “Frankly,” he said, “either I have failed personally or I feel abandoned by the entire management team, in the sense that my business and personal ethics appear to have not been translated into the culture of at least one operation.”  A few months later the administrator is forced to resign and an interim administrator with a background in law enforcement takes the reins of county government.

In short order he moved to hire an ethics/compliance officer who reports directly to the county administrator from an office in the administrator’s suite. This is an unusual arrangement as it affords the ethics officer no organizational independence. The typical arrangement is the establishment of an ethics commission with an executive director/ethics officer appointed by the commission.

Moreover, in a number of communities, the ethics commission works alongside an inspector general who is charged with investigating allegations of  graft, fraud, or contractual shenanigans (e.g., see Palm Beach County, Florida). The inspector general does not handle or respond to ethics complaints registered against the administrative staff. That is the job of the ethics officer.

Will the newly created position of ethics/compliance officer in Sarasota County work? Most likely in the short term but most unlikely in the long term as ethics can be policed only so long before it creates a culture of evasiveness and catch me if you can. The “gotcha” approach has a short shelf life. Is it not so?

Is Sarasota County in hot pursuit of ethical governance? Without question. Will offenders be caught–maybe, maybe not.  As Doris Day once put in melody, “Que sera, sera. What ever will be, will be. The future’s not ours to see. Que sera, sera ”

One response to In hot pursuit . . . catch me if you can!

  1. On February 6th, 2012 at 5:04 am , Andrew Marsden said...

    Great written codes by themsleves never seem to lead to ethical behaviour. It would be interesting to know how the management team were originally chosen and what integrity measures were promoted in recruitment and ongoing management actions. I have seen codes and “we are all honest here” as excuses for not putting in place routine management controls and standard audit practices, such as credit card reviews.

    I tend to agree enforcement will only go so far and tends to be the initial reaction to ethical breaches. Clearly enforcement has a place but by itself will not lead to cultural change.

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