Eliot Spitzer’s Harvard ethics lecture: Too soon for him to speak?

November 20, 2009

F. Scott Fitzgerald once said there were no second acts in America. He hadn’t met Eliot Spitzer. Recently, the former New York governor was invited to deliver a lecture on ethics at Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Foundation Center for Ethics.

Before I get to the ethics of this matter, let me just say: I have no interest in attacking Spitzer. Nor do I hold any personal judgment against the man for the events that forced him from office in March 2008. But I do think if you’re going to speak about ethics, you had better be willing to take a long, hard look at your own actions. Instead, Spitzer stuck to a script: “From Ayn Rand to Ken Feinberg — How Quickly the Paradigm Shifts.”

Yes, I’m sure Spitzer had lots of interesting things to say about policing Wall Street. But can you imagine how much more valuable an ethics talk would have been if he’d answered the question: “How does someone — in this case a savvy prosecutor — fall into the trap of things he once railed against?”

Maybe Spitzer is still trying to figure that out. I can sympathize. Soon after my release from federal prison in the mid-90s, I spoke about ethics before a few rotary clubs. Regardless of what I had to say, my audience had a preset skepticism about whether I had a valid message to offer.

Ten years later, it’s a different story. When I speak at universities, people now understand that enough time has passed for me not to have replicated the poor choices of year’s past. I don’t sweep that past under the rug, either. I am open about the choices I made that led to incarceration. That candor provides the greatest opportunity for learning. Because you can talk about theory all day long. What matters most are lessons you can share on how others can avoid the same mistakes.

So, here’s a question worth asking: What is the appropriate lag time before someone can step out again into the public sphere and talk about ethics? Is it too soon for Spitzer? Does he need to spend a little time in anonymity — five years, ten years? — before he can speak? You tell me.

Senator Grassley: Another Inquiry – What Did Pfizer Pay to Faculty Members at Harvard Medical School?

March 5, 2009

The last time I wrote about Senator Grassley was when he requested financial data from six tele-evanglists.  Looks like that went basically no where.  Too much resistance perhaps.  Now the Senator has requested information from Pfizer.    In a New York Times article it is reported that Senator Grassley asked the drug maker Pfizer to provide details of its payments to at least 149 faculty members at Harvard Medical School. charles-grassley

Senator Grassley’s letter is reproduced as follows:

Jeffrey B. Kindler
Chairman of the Board and Chief Executive Officer
Pfizer Inc.
235 East 42nd Street
New York, NY 10017

Dear Mr. Kindler:

The United States Senate Committee on Finance (Committee) has jurisdiction
over the Medicare and Medicaid programs.  As a senior member of the United States
Senate and as Ranking Member of the Committee, I have a special responsibility to the
more than 80 million Americans who receive health care coverage under those programs
to ensure that beneficiaries receive drugs that are both safe and effective.

For the last three years, the Committee has investigated various aspects of the
pharmaceutical industry including industry funding for Continuing Medical Education
(CME), and the failure of physicians to disclose payments from industry when applying
for grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).  Further, inquiries have led the
Committee to believe that physicians are failing to disclose the money they receive from
companies as required by federal regulations governing NIH grantees.

I am currently looking further into these concerns.  I was greatly disturbed to read
an article in The New York Times documenting an employee of your organization who
was taking cellphone photos of Harvard University (Harvard) medical students
demonstrating against pharmaceutical influence on campus.  I find this troubling as I
have documented several instances where pharmaceutical companies have attempted to
intimidate academic critics of drugs.  Last February, I sent a letter to the Secretary of
Health and Human Services pointing out that a pharmaceutical company hired a private
investigative firm to background an FDA public safety officer.

While I am not certain that photographing demonstrators rises to the same level, it
does raise concerns that Pfizer is attempting to intimidate young scholars from professing
their independent views on issues that they think are critical to science, medicine, and the
health and welfare of American taxpayers.

Accordingly, I request that you provide the following information:

1) A detailed account of payments and/or benefits of any kind that your company
has given to the 149 Harvard faculty members mentioned in The New York Times
article, and any other unreported Harvard doctors receiving payments.  The time
span of this request covers January 1, 2007 through the date of this letter.  For
each doctor receiving payments, please provide the following information for
each payment:

a. Name and title of doctor,
b. Date of payment,
c. Payment description (CME, honorarium, research support, etc),
d. Amount of payment, and
e. Year end or year-to-date payment.

2) Any communications to include emails, faxes, letters, and photos regarding
Harvard medical students demonstrating and/or agitating against pharmaceutical
influence in medicine.  The time span of this request covers January 1, 2008 to the

In cooperating with the Committee’s review, no documents, records, data, or
other information related to these matters, either directly or indirectly, shall be destroyed,
modified, removed, or otherwise made inaccessible to the Committee.

I look forward to hearing from you by no later than March 10, 2009.  All
documents responsive to this request should be sent electronically, on a disc, in
searchable PDF format to Brian_Downey@finance-rep.senate.gov.  If you have any
questions, please do not hesitate to contact Paul Thacker or Emilia DiSanto at (202) 224-

In an article entitled: Harvard Medical School in Ethics Quandary the following was reported:03medschool1600

In a first-year pharmacology class at Harvard Medical School, Matt Zerden grew wary as the professor promoted the benefits of cholesterol drugs and seemed to belittle a student who asked about side effects.

Mr. Zerden later discovered something by searching online that he began sharing with his classmates. The professor was not only a full-time member of the Harvard Medical faculty, but a paid consultant to 10 drug companies, including five makers of cholesterol treatments.

“I felt really violated,” Mr. Zerden, now a fourth-year student, recently recalled. “Here we have 160 open minds trying to learn the basics in a protected space, and the information he was giving wasn’t as pure as I think it should be.”

Mr. Zerden’s minor stir four years ago has lately grown into a full-blown movement by more than 200 Harvard Medical School students and sympathetic faculty, intent on exposing and curtailing the industry influence in their classrooms and laboratories, as well as in Harvard’s 17 affiliated teaching hospitals and institutes.

As an ethics speaker, often I hear complaints about banking and finance, yet ethics extend into all areas of enterprise.  Pfizer has agreed, unlike the tele-evanglists, to cooperate fully with Grassley’s requests.  My guess is that Pfizer will be exposed for what likely has been an industry standard – shall we call it “payola”?  Harvard, without admitting guilt, of course, will find a source of funds drying up and be embarrassed by their choices or “ethics” being called into question.

What do you think?  Is it unethical for an individual or organization to take money from vendors when it has been an unspoken industry standard?