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Jon Coupal- Columnist

Jon Coupal is an attorney and president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association -- California's largest taxpayer organization with offices in Los Angeles and Sacramento. [go to website] [go to Coupal index]

Ethics and Spending Public Money
Abusing the system...
[Jon Coupal] 9/23/04

There seems to be an increase in the number of business schools offering courses in ethics. And more schools are showing students, "up close and personal," the consequences of unethical behavior. Sharon Watkins, the renowned Enron whistle-blower, has lectured to a class at UC Irvine, while students at the Hass School of Business at UC Berkeley visit jails to interview convicted white-collar criminals.

Most Americans, after watching the evening news and seeing prominent executives from firms like Enron and Adelphia Communications doing the "perp walk" after arrest, probably welcome this development. It may be asking too much, but the hope is that these courses do more than teach students how to avoid prison, but that they actually instill a sense of right and wrong.

For years, ethics has been included in the training of doctors, accountants and lawyers. Considering the low esteem in which lawyers are held in our society, some might wonder if studying ethics does any good. But it could be worse. While a few in every profession may be predisposed to be cheaters in life -- they may even cheat on their ethics exams -- holding up high standards for acceptable behavior has a beneficial influence on most students.

So, while those entering knowledge based service-professions continue to be required to study ethics, students of business are now being encouraged to do the same. But is there another important group that would benefit from training in principled conduct?

A recent news report reveled that Orange County has been compelled to crack down on cell-phone use by employees. While the number of phones issued doubled in two years, the total charges were up 82 percent. Some county employees' bills totaled thousands of dollars. A secretary in the Public Works Department ran up a bill of $2,400. When called to account, she left her job before she could be questioned, thus leaving the taxpayers with the bill. A supervisory employee ran up a tab of $4,200 over six months and the county's chief labor negotiator was responsible for a bill of $7,400 in a one year period.

Most firms will allow a personal call in the case of emergency or an important family matter. However, unless your job is calling Micronesia or the Malagasy Republic on a daily basis, chances are, if you are running up thousands of dollars in telephone bills you will be downsized in a hurry.

That is not to say that the long-winded county employees were making personal calls, but if they were making lots of calls on government business, couldn't they have used their office phones to reduce costs? And why should it be necessary for the county to issue guidelines to limit the use of county-issued cell-phones and discourage their use for personal calls?

Would these employees have benefited from a seminar on ethics as part of their orientation when hired?

Another recent story tells of a doctor employed at the King/Drew Medical Center in Los Angeles who used surgical equipment provided by a company he owns. For these devices the county was charged, in many cases, more than twice as much as it would have been if it had purchased more conventional instruments used by most hospitals.

The actions of this physician seem to be in clear violation of the county's conflict of interest laws. Perhaps a seminar in ethics for those who are responsible to the public wouldn't have helped.

But it couldn't hurt. CRO

copyright 2004 Howard Jarvis Taxpayers association


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