The Biggest Ethics & Compliance Scandal in 100 Years

Many people will undoubtedly be outraged at this thought, but the criminal indictment of former President Donald Trump is the biggest ethics and compliance (E&C) scandal in the last 100 years. The United States is accusing Trump of intentionally making false statements about fraudulent votes during the 2020 election for the purpose of conspiring to corruptly “obstruct and impede the January 6 congressional proceeding at which the collected results of the presidential election are counted and certified in violation of 18 U.S.C., section 1512(k).”

It’s both a compliance violation and an ethical breach, and will most certainly be studied for years to come. Without considering emotional identity politics, this is a clearcut case for any E&C professional.

In 1919, Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said that a person cannot shout “fire” in a crowded theater; it’s not protected speech under the First Amendment. The statement was made in ruling on the case Schenk v. United States, which held that the defendant’s speech in opposition to the draft during World War I was not protected speech as it was likely to “incite imminent lawless action.”

As we experienced, President Trump’s speech (regarding fraudulent votes) was akin to shouting “fire” in a crowded theater. The speech was intended to incite lawless action from Vice President Pence and did incite a lawless mob that attacked our House Chamber as well as congressional staff and District of Columbia police officers.

In addition to violating a criminal statute, President Trump’s actions would not pass any ethical code of conduct. When contemplating whether actions are ethical, the inquiry typically focuses on who benefits from the actions. If the actions are an overall benefit for a wider body of stakeholders, then it’s likely those contemplated actions are ethical. If the contemplated actions benefit a small group of stakeholders while negatively impacting a much wider body of stakeholders… then it’s likely those contemplated actions are not ethical. Here, President Trump’s actions benefited himself and possibly the Republican party while harming our greater society and the foundation of our democracy, e.g., the peaceful transfer of power. Under any organizational code of conduct, those actions would be viewed as unethical.

People can have different opinions and emotional reactions to President Trump and his actions, but when analyzed through an E&C lens, his actions are a pretty clear example of an ethical breach and a compliance violation.

Janine Yancey
Business Compliance & Workplace Culture Expert
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