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On the assessment: “I did nothing wrong”

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“The harm here is not measured in the value of property or money,” Judge James B. Zagel said before telling Mr. Blagojevich his fate. “The harm is the erosion of public trust in government.”  – NY Times

A couple of days ago, former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich got 14 years in the slammer for corruption (read).  For as long as he was on trial he maintained that he “did nothing wrong”.

A few weeks ago, former Philadelphia schools superintendent Arlene Ackerman filed for unemployment benefits after getting  a nearly $1-million dollar buyout to get rid of her.  (read).  She was quoted saying,  “I did nothing wrong” (read)

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – Former Philadelphia schools superintendent Arlene Ackerman, who was given a nearly $1-million buyout earlier this year, has applied for unemployment.

School District spokesman Fernando Gallard today confirmed that Ackerman wants to collect state unemployment benefits.

“The former superintendent did apply for unemployment,” Gallard told KYW Newsradio today.

This comes after taxpayers funded a $905,000 buyout when she was shown the door in August (see related story).

As part of her separation agreement, the School Reform Commission agreed not to contest any unemployment claims she might file.

Then there was Mr. Flick.  Mr. Flick, after winning $2 million in the lottery still uses food stamps at the tax payers expense.  Did he do anything wrong?  Can you embarrass him?  Unlikely.  From Mr. Flick: (read)

“If you’re going to … try to make me feel bad, you aren’t going to do it. It ain’t going to happen,” he said.

What about what’s happening in Bell City…  Can these folks say, “I did nothing wrong?”  (read)

But, the essence of the thing is that Bell City Manager, Robert Rizzo, was being paid a salary of $770,000 per year.  Bell City is primarily a blue-collar town of about 40,000 people. A typical salary of a Bell City resident is about $28,000 per year.  About 17% of the town lives in poverty.

The Bell City Council worked it out so that Rizzo would get a near 12% raise each year and they themselves – the City Council – paid themselves about $100,000 per year for part-time work.

Rizzo got fired. But that does not mean he will lose his pension of $709,607 per year. Depending on how long Rizzo lives, the total payout of pension benefits could be close to $30 million dollars.  And that $30 million dollar pension for one person is on the backs of the taxpayers.


So when Judge Zagel sentenced Rod to 14 years in the slammer the  Judge made a few observation…

Zagel: “I can not comprehend that even if you are guilty, you don’t think you caused harm to Illinois.”

Zagel: “You did good work. But I’m more concerned when you wanted to do good only when it benefited yourself.”

Zagel: “Your personality may not be entirely suitable for public service.”

Zagel: “Blagojevich’s staff did not march him down this criminal path. He marched them.”

Will making tighter laws and rules solve the problem?

It seems that whenever something bad happens there are those who want to pass a law to prohibit this or that bad behavior.  Rather than make  more laws and rules perhaps we need better people in these pivotal decision-making roles.  That is, people who can make better judgements.  What is better?   In the case of those in public office and those who make decisions for organizations and corporations one can ask,  in whose benefit are decisions and judgements made?  To the benefit of stakeholders (citizens or shareholders) or do people make decisions, as Judge Zagel says of Rod,  “You did good work. But I’m more concerned when you wanted to do good only when it benefited yourself.” 

The accounting equation that doing good makes up for doing bad…

There also seems to be another curious idea at work in some peoples minds.  The idea that good and bad are entered into some kind of accounting equation.  And, if the good things you do somehow have more value than the bad things you do then those bad things are ignored or erased.  In some sense, do more good than bad and you will be forgiven for the evil that you do.  When revenue matches expenses in a business you are at the breakeven point.  But I’m not sure that in moral and ethical judgements this sort of accounting and balancing act works so well.  But, some think that it does.

A Gift – The Ambiguity in rules and laws

There is not enough ink or paper or time to codify good behavior.  No set of laws or rules can accommodate every situation.  As such, you need people in political office and leading corporations who can make “good” judgements and have a solid track record of such judgements.

According to Dr. Martha Stout, a clinical psychologist, 1 in 25 people is a sociopath (read)

So, in a group of 100 people  just who are the 4 people who are likely suffering from, what used to be referred to as, “Moral Imbecility“?  Who are the 4 in the crowd of 100 that make decisions that could be considered what Judge Zagel observed of Rod as, “You did good work. But I’m more concerned when you wanted to do good only when it benefited yourself.”  Who are the 4 that put their self-interest above all the rest?  … and try to pass it off as something good for the company, organization, or the citizens?

It is a gift that rules and laws have a “space” that allows for one’s own conscience to make a decision on how to behave and tell right from wrong.  Without this “space” it would be harder for “us” to determine just who are the 4 people in the crowd of 100 that are the ruthless ones.  (The Sociopath Next Door (paperback) by Dr. Strout)

Can you manufacture a “space” for individuals to reveal their character and judgement?  That is just what the Tru TV Reality Show Bait Car does.  This reality show creates a ready-made opportunity for an average citizen to make a judgement.  Leave an unlocked car with keys in a conspicuous spot and watch individuals that see this car make a judgement of right and wrong.  It’s a benefit to society to catch these folks using a staged “bait car” before they do the damage of theft to an ordinary citizen.

Do we need more laws and more rules to stop bad behavior?  No.  It’s impossible to codify it all.

The Take

Maybe all we need to do is pay closer attention to the “space” in existing rules and laws and let those who make judgements within this space take the bait and reveal their true character, motivations, and judgements.

Catch them in the small things – the small judgements and tiny decisions they make.  Catch them early enough, take then out of play, and maybe this will lessen the damage they can do on the big things – to others, organizations, corporations, political office, and perhaps society in general.

Read a related article on this site about the principal-agent problem –


Written by frrl

December 9, 2011 at 11:45 pm

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