Now that the 2018 political season is picking up, we should talk about a small but splendid phenomenon I’ve noticed this spring: ethics and compliance officers running for public office.
In New York we have Luke Brussel, a former head of compliance at GE Capital, First Data Corp., and Cengage Learning; he’s is running for a seat on the Ninth Judicial District for New York Supreme Court. In Minnesota we have Richard Painter, chief ethics counsel during the Bush Administration; he’s is running for U.S. Senate in Minnesota — as a Democrat, no less.
How many more ethics and compliance officers are running for state or national office this year? I don’t know, but more should. I recorded a podcast with Brussel, included at the top of this post. Regardless of whether you agree with Brussel’s politics (he’s a Democrat), a larger point emerges during our conversation: ethics and compliance officers have superb experience for the demands of public office.
To my thinking, ethics and compliance officers have at least five professional skills sorely needed in the political realm.
First, compliance officers are good at running investigations. That’s a crucial part of the job for legislators overseeing the executive branch: competent, thorough, fair investigations. Sure, partisan politics warps many investigations beyond all useful purpose, and compliance officers in public office won’t solve that shortcoming — but some competence is better than no competence.
Second, compliance officers are good at policy development. We take a set of objectives and determine some practical way to achieve them, and then put those ideas into writing for everyone to follow. That’s the essence of lawmaking.
Third, the objectives compliance officers want to achieve are rooted in ethics. All our laws, regulations, and court decisions start from the set of moral values that supposedly guided the founding of the United States. Politicians should think about what those values are, and why they’re important. It’s a corny and squishy idea, typically not heard outside a 9th grade civics class — but ethics matters. Without ethics, anything goes.
Fourth, compliance officers are good at articulating the value of good conduct. This is the practical analogue of our philosophical point above. Anyone can say that anti-corruption programs must be followed because the law says so. The best compliance officers can explain how good business conduct makes your company a more desirable business partner; they can remind us that corruption ruins the lives of innocent people — which is not what any company, country, or person should be about, no matter the gain to ourselves.
And fifth, compliance officers have lots of experience with real people, in real organizations. The law can lead to some outlandish results in the real world, especially when it’s driven by legal theorists without much experience in how businesses and other organizations actually work. Compliance officers have that experience, in everything from investigations to technology to employee discipline. It’s a valuable perspective.
Public Office, Here and Now
Needless to say, the Trump Administration came up numerous times in my conversation with Brussel. Indeed, the administration’s first attempt at an immigrant travel ban in January 2017 — a disaster legally, politically, and logistically — drove Brussel to consider running for public office in the first place.
“It was chaotic and a moment where a lot of people were holding their breath, and I think scared,” Brussel says. Then the federal courts intervened to block the ban.
“That was the first time we saw that there are democratic institutions, like the independent judiciary, that can uphold the rule of law,” Brussel said. “That’s when I started thing, ‘Here’s something that I could bring in 20 years of legal experience, I could do it well, and I could play an important part in the most meaningful and impactful fight that this country has gone through certainly in my lifetime’.”
And yes, Brussel believes his experience as an ethics and compliance officer will serve him well. Navigating conflicts of interest, conducting fair investigations, holding people accountable — those are all core duties of a CCO, as much as they are for an elected judge or lawmaker. “All these things, I’ve seen before,” he says.
Brussel is a fierce and unapologetic critic of President Trump and the Trump Administration. For the record, so am I. Trump clearly believes he is above the law and incapable of conflicts of interest. His tweets this morning about pardoning himself say exactly that.
As has been stated by numerous legal scholars, I have the absolute right to PARDON myself, but why would I do that when I have done nothing wrong? In the meantime, the never ending Witch Hunt, led by 13 very Angry and Conflicted Democrats (& others) continues into the mid-terms!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) June 4, 2018
Trump doesn’t believe in independent institutions that might check his authority. Ethics and compliance officers devote their careers to building independent institutions that can check unethical conduct.
Now, I know the criticism some people will make: that, therefore, I believe ethics and compliance officers can only seek public office with a straight face by running as Democrats. I do not believe that. I’ve known many ethics and compliance officers who lean Republican, and I agree with more than a few traditional Republican ideas myself.
What I don’t hear are any serious, thoughtful ethics and compliance officers supporting Trump personally. Some supported him in 2016 because they hated Hillary Clinton more; none have ever told me that Trump himself is an ethical leader they support. Even if some of Trump’s policies or appointments are worth respect (and some are), Trump as a chief executive represents everything an ethics and compliance officer opposes: arbitrary leadership, unmoored policy, conflicts of interest, absent checks on authority.
Anyway, I don’t wish Brussel and Painter every success because they’re running as Democrats. I wish them every success because ethics and compliance professionals have a perspective that lets them be outstanding public servants. If you’re running for public office this year too, let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll give you the same attention.