What have all the Ethics gone? Seems that Fraud is rampant! Business Ethics expert Chuck Gallagher comments

All too often I’m asked, especially as we review this past year on the anniversary month of the disclosure of Bernie Madoff’s fraud, whether fraud should decrease since we are more focused on ethics and ethical choices. Unfortunately, as I see it the answer is a resounding no!   Yet, the Ethics Resource Center in their new 2009 biennial National Business Ethics Survey reported a surprising conclusion:

We behave better in bad times.  “Contrary to what one might expect, misconduct declines in turbulent economic times and rises when the pressure’s off,” the report says.  When asked about specific abuses or ethical lapses – such as misusing company resources, lying to outside stakeholders or falsifying time or expenses – a smaller percentage of U.S. workers observed problems this year compared with the 2007 survey, taken before the recession began.  “Yet our research suggests that the improvements in ethical conduct will be temporary,” warned the ethics center’s CEO, Patricia Harned.

As I review ethics issues weekly I must say that I have a hard time believing in the validity of their survey.  Just look at these stories reported on here the first two weeks of this month.

Patricia Wilson, 57, of Draper, Virginia, has pleaded guilty to embezzling more than $167,000 from the Memorial Christian Church where she had served as the church bookkeeper for 9 years. Prosecutors alleged last April that Wilson diverted most of the monies from the Church’s building fund but also from it’s general fund.

Casey Jane Goebel, of Indio, California, was arrested last week for allegedly embezzling at least $250,000 from Hyde’s Air Conditioning where she had been employed as a bookkeeper. According to authorities, Goebel’s thefts ocurred between August 2007 and July 2009

Robin K. Ramey, 48, of Huntington, Ohio, pleaded guilty to charges she embezzled some $185,000 from the Huntington National Bank where she was a longtime employee, ultimately rising to the level of supervisor. Ramey caused at least 86 wire transfers in bank funds to be sent to her personal checking and saving accounts. If the plea agreement holds, Ramey will be ordered to spend two years in prison and repay the bank. She is scheduled to be sentenced on January 21, 2010.

Jessica Harmon, 32, of Lowell, Michigan, has been charged with embezzling more than $100,000 from a unnamed local law firm where she had been employed apparently in a bookkeeping position. The thefts reportedly occurred over a 3 year period. Specifically, Harmon faces charges of embezzlement of more than $20,000, uttering and publishing and using a computer to commit a crime. Harmon, who had been employed by the law firm for 10 years, allegedly made unauthorized withdrawals from firm accounts and wrote herself extra pay checks.

Capt. Michael Dung Nguyen, 28, of Beaverton, Oregon, pleaded guilty Monday to theft and money-laundering charges related to the theft of some $690,000 in cash intended for relief and reconstruction in Iraq. Nguyen was the U.S. Army battalion civil affairs officer in Muqdadiyah, Iraq and had been entrusted with cash designated for local commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan for urgent humanitarian relief and reconstruction. He was indicted last March on charges of theft of government property, structuring financial transactions and money laundering. The thefts occurred between April 2007 and February 2009, according to the indictment. He spend some of the money on luxury vehicles, among other personal items.

Three components come together when a fraud, like the ones reported above, take place.  NEED – OPPORTUNITY and RATIONALIZATION.  In the cases above – I cannot speak to the first and third component – Need and Rationalization, but in each case the fraudster exploited a weakness or put another way – found an OPPORTUNITY.

Patricia Wilson used her trusted position as church bookkeeper (9 years no less) to  exploit what was likely a weak system of internal controls for Memorial Christian Church.  Likewise, two other bookkeepers, Casey Jane Goebel and Jessica Harmon, used their positions of trust to embezzle funds from their employers.  Robin K. Ramey stated, related to her embezzlement, “Why it took so long is that (the bank) doesn’t usually check there.”  Finally, Capt. Michael Dung Nguyen had been entrusted with cash to benefit members of the US military.

What was common in each of the cases above – TRUST.  Did each of the fraudsters know better?  Sure they did!  Were they at one time ethical – I would guess so.  Yet, in each of their lives they made choices – choices that clearly reflect unethical behavior and consequences that are life changing that follow.

As a business ethics speaker, I often state to audiences – Every Choice Has A Consequence.

COMMENTS ARE ALWAYS WELCOME.  If you knew either of the individuals mentioned above – perhaps you’d be willing to share what motivated them to make the choices they made.

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3 Responses to What have all the Ethics gone? Seems that Fraud is rampant! Business Ethics expert Chuck Gallagher comments

  1. Ruth Crane says:

    You wanted to know what motivats embezzlers to steal? That’s easy. Their need/greed and their employer providing the opportunity. It isn’t much more complicated than that. I am sure you understand that. And all of the ethics speeches/policy manuals will be nothing more than an academic exercise unless employers start to get it – just as they lock the door to their house and car when they exit – they must put into place some locks on their business assets. Not many and nothing to complicated, in fact a couple of very simple procedures will do it. I am tired of CPA/CFE’s making this process more complicated and expensive than it has to be which of course means that small business owners do nothing more than keep their fingers crossed hoping they won’t fall victim because they don’t see how they can afford an expensive forensic audit.

  2. B Varapanno says:

    Is this really true: “We behave better in bad times”?

    I specialize in market arbitrage strategies created by just such possibilities. You and your readers can probably think of any number of investment decisions that ought to be profitable if people really did act better at certain known times.

    In fact, I don’t believe that these profitable strategies exist. It could be that the facts are so well known that they’re already priced in–but this seems not to be the case. If anyone believes they’ve found some statistically significant proof related to this, let me know!

  3. I find cases of Church fraud like the one mentioned above to be particularly sad, but they can be avoided with responsible management/stewardship of your money. I recently found out about a Christian Accounting Firm that has some excellent resources to help tighten up your churches financial security. They even have an online test that will show your church how at risk you are! The service is called Weeds in the Garden, definitely check them out!

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