When Does a Gift Become a Bribe? ; amid a Storm of Corruption Scandals, More Professionals Are Questioning the Ethical Nuances of Gifts

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As members of Congress scramble to take cover amid a storm of corruption scandals, professionals of all stripes have fresh reasons to question whether the business-related gifts they give and receive are truly innocent.

Norms vary as to what constitutes a bribe, say ethicists and other experts on the subtle, sometimes manipulative, power of gifts. As a result, individuals in positions of responsibility and trust are likely to get entangled - perhaps tragically - in the absence of explicit policies for what is acceptable.

"If you don't know where the lines are, you may not be able to make the best decision," says Judy Nadler, senior fellow in government ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University in California. Having clear rules in place, she says, "makes it easier when you are tempted."

On Capitol Hill, a plea bargain from Republican lobbyist Jack Abramoff has attracted the glare of an unwelcome spotlight. Wary that Mr. Abramoff's legendary largesse might constitute bribery in a Department of Justice probe, dozens in Congress have rushed to donate or return hundreds of thousands of dollars linked to him. Such steps, however, won't undo the times when members allegedly unwound in Abramoff's skybox seats at sporting events or flew to such destinations as the Northern Mariana Islands on his dime.

Congressional rules cap noncampaign-related gifts at $50 per item and $100 per year from any individual, including lunches or other meals.

Abramoff's case threatens to build upon the confessed shame of US Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham (R) of California, who pled guilty in November to charges of accepting a luxury yacht and other gifts from private firms seeking government contracts. And outside Congress, charges of bribery in the past year have taken down a city councilor in San Jose, Calif., a mayor in Chicopee, Mass., and Chicago's city clerk.

Amid this climate, some professionals are taking steps to ensure that even traditional gifts don't create conflicts of interest.

In medicine, the prescription-drug industry now bans its representatives from doling out gifts worth more than $100 each to physicians, and doctors' spouses are no longer welcome at industry- sponsored "educational" dinners in restaurants.

About 400 physicians and the 60,000-member American Medical Students Association are urging colleagues to go further and take no gifts whatsoever from drugmakers, lest their independence of judgment come into question.

In 2004, New York City joined other school districts that have begun restricting gifts to teachers. The policy of capping gift values at $5 in New York resulted after parents complained that students were getting special treatment in exchange for high-priced gifts.

Hard and fast rules, however, tend to get blurry in international business settings. Even Fortune 500 companies with laudably firm policies have trouble in this area, says Peter Madsen, executive director of the Center for the Advancement of Applied Ethics and Political Philosophy at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh.

In Asian countries, for instance, refusing a gift is often considered unthinkably rude. And in some less-developed nations, foreigners are sometimes expected to "pay to play."

"Relativism is rampant ... and when you're talking business, cultural relativism becomes a really big problem," Mr. Madsen says.

Multinational corporations, he says, "engage in what we would call a bribe, although perhaps elsewhere it's not [called that], but they do it nonetheless to get the business. …