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
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
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
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. …