Moral compass keeps temptation at bay, U.S. attorney says

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By Jo Mathis

Legal News

People often complain that citizens are less ethical than they used to be.

But U.S. Attorney Barbara L. McQuade isn't buying it.

"I personally don't think it's any worse than it ever was," she said. "I think we're just better at catching them."

McQuade spoke to students Thursday at the Ann Arbor campus of Thomas M. Cooley Law School. Her talk, titled, "A culture of ethics," was the latest in Cooley's "Integrity in our Communities" series.

"From the beginning of time, people have had that temptation to go awry and I think it will always be there," said McQuade, an Ann Arbor resident. "That's why it's so important to have your own moral compass pointed the right direction so that when temptation comes your way, you are prepared to deal with it."

She said people tend to go astray when they're in an environment that lacks a culture of integrity.

Building a culture of integrity, she said, requires three things: an expectation that things will be done the right way all the time; a safe environment where people can admit their mistakes; and holding people accountable when they violate the rules.

Few people go into office or a job expecting that they'll take kick-backs, cheat on their taxes, make false statements in loan documents to banks, pad their billing records, or submit false billing records to Medicare, she said.

But when the temptation is there, and there is no expectation of integrity, those people cave, she said.

"It can start very small, but you see other people doing it, and suddenly it becomes acceptable," McQuade said. "`That's the way we do business here, and that's OK.'"

"Once you go across that ethical line, there's no going back."

Students looking for work should seek an ethical place, she said.

"You can ask if they have a mission statement; ask if they have core values; look at their web site and see how they define success for themselves," McQuade said. "Once you get that job and start earning money, it's not as easy to leave as you think."

McQuade is a big believer that the cover-up is worse than the crime.

She referred to a fire at the Washtenaw United Way in 2002 that was set by an employee in one of the non-profit companies in the building who had been stealing small amounts of petty cash.

When his boss continued to ask for the receipts to reconcile the discrepancies, the pressure grew until one night he set the building on fire, figuring if the building was gone, he wouldn't have to worry about producing the nonexistent receipts anymore.

"Instead of admitting that he'd stolen small amounts of money, he burned down a building that caused multiple millions of dollars in damage, put some non-profits out of business, burned himself in the process because he wasn't a very good arsonist, was caught because he went to the hospital with burns all over him the day after a building burns down, was prosecuted, convicted and sentenced to five years in prison," McQuade said. "This was a young man with a bright future...The cover-up was so much worse than the crime."

"If you yourself find yourself in a situation, remember how important it is to admit your mistake and cut your losses."

McQuade works closely with the FBI on public corruption cases. Just two weeks ago, Wayne County's former chief information officer Tahir Kazmi was caught on tape talking about lying to the F.B.I. about some of the corruption agents are investigating, and creating false documents to support their lies.

Kazmi has been charged with federal extortion and theft charges.

The tape makes prosecuting him a lot easier, McQuade quipped.

Prosecuting Wayne County employees is something McQuade has gotten quite good at since President Barack Obama appointed her to United States attorney for the Eastern district of Michigan. She spent her first year in office obtaining a large number of indictments against ex-Detroit mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, along with many of his relatives and members of his administration.

McQuade explained that accountability is vital to an ethical environment because otherwise "the poison can spread."

"It's very difficult to fire someone," she said. "You develop personal relationships with people. They justify their behavior, and it's something that sounds pretty good. You start to justify their behavior for them. I think it's human nature to avoid conflict. And we're so busy with the work of the organization, the core mission, that dealing with some of these personnel problems is so easy to cast aside, but so important to address."

If you don't hold bad employees accountable, the good employees will leave, she said.

"Integrity is not just a quality," she said. "It is a culture. And if you buy into that culture, you will be positioned for success, and I will never see you on the wrong side of the courtroom."

Published: Mon, Mar 5, 2012

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