Topic: Professions & Institutions

Campaign Donation Shakedowns
(6/1/2004)

The Legal Times recently reported that law firms and individual attorneys have already channeled nearly $17 million into presidential campaigns since the primary season began, putting them on track to increase their contributions in the 2000 presidential election by 50% or more. This is all well and good, but the way some the money has been raised is ethically offensive, although you won't find any prohibitions of the method in the election laws.

While some attorneys in firms recognize that it is inappropriate to solicit subordinates, others see no problem with it. One partner in a prestigious firm is quoted by the Legal Times as believing that to do so was no more inappropriate than "having a partner going around raising money for the United Way." He's right. Both are completely unethical.

It is coercion, plain and simple, and those who solicit employees and subordinates usually, in their hearts, know that it is coercion. Asking those who depend on your approval and regard for a political contribution is exactly as unethically coercive as asking them to support your favorite charity, which itself is exactly like asking them to mow your lawn or buy you lunch. Even if you would never take adverse action against an employee who refuses your request, your subordinates can never be sure that turning down the boss won't turn out badly for them eventually. That is why it effective for bosses and partners to do the asking, that is why so many of them do it, and that is why it is wrong.

Brett Kapel, a federal election law expert also quoted by the Legal Times, believes that the whole thing can be finessed. Lawyers are good at finesse. "Showing up at someone's door would tend to show coercion," Kapel says. "One e-mail is not going to do that." Ethics Scoreboard agrees, if the superior sending the e-mail has no way of finding out whether the contribution was made by the subordinate or not. But that's not the way it usually works.

Everyone who has ever raised any money for charity, whether it involves soliciting huge checks for a college building fund or simply selling a box of Girl Scout cookies, knows that the effectiveness of a request for a donation depends on the relationship between the solicited and the solicitor. When the relationship is a strictly personal one, the request is likely to be ethical. But when there is a disparity of power, and one party feels that his or her career and livelihood may be at risk, the request for a donation becomes a shakedown. Law firms and businesses should have clear policies against supervisor soliciting those who report to them in any way. What solicitations there are should be general in nature, and whether an employee actually gives or not should be known only to the employee. How this is to be accomplished when the firm or company has a PAC is problematical, but it is also essential. Indeed, employees should not be permitted to publicize their contributions, because even that could create pressure on other employees.

This is an argument ripe for rationalizations, and we all can recite them by rote, can't we?

"Everybody does it." "It's for a good cause." "This is a special case." The other side is doing it." They are all excuses to be unethical. If you are asked by your superior or supervisor to contribute to Kerry, Bush, the safety of spawning whales or the local blood drive, the correct response is that who or what you give charitable dollars to is your private business and nobody else's, and that you would prefer not to be solicited at work, thank you. And if you are a superior or supervisor, the proper course is not to ask at all.

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Note: The inspiration for this piece was a comment in a unique and superb blog by David Giacolone called ethicalEsq & haikuEsq. Long an unusual but somehow soothing mix of inspired legal and ethical commentary combined with original haikus, its creator recently foreswore punditry for poetry, an option open to him but to few others. The site is worth regular visits, at www.blogs.law.harvard.edu/ethicalesq

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