I recently watched The Oprah Conversation with Barack Obama about the writing of his new memoir, The Promised Land. Oprah Winfrey asked the former president about his eight-year scandal-free administration (tan suit excepted), and Obama reflected: “I am very proud of the fact that we didn’t have a whiff of scandal while we were in that White House for eight years. It’s not easy to do.” 

Then came the next part of his answer, sure to warm any ethics and compliance officer’s heart: “Part of it was a belief on my part that when you decide to go into public service, it is public service. We all slip and there’s always the possibility you make a bad judgment, and that’s why having a strong ethics office and someone like …. [special counsel for ethics] Norm Eisen … was important.”

Guest column: Lisa Schor Babin

Of course, just read the newspaper on any day and you can see that the presence of a chief compliance officer or an “ethics czar” doesn’t guarantee a scandal-free record. Senior leadership needs to set the tone from the top, make a commitment to the corporate culture, and hire the right people to lead and do business with integrity and ethics. An effective compliance program is inextricably linked to a strong corporate culture. As Yonason Goldson, director of Ethical Imperatives Corp. and ethics ninja said recently, “That’s why compliance laws only succeed when they rest on a foundation of ethical idealism.” (The 7 Principles of Ethical Leadership, Corporate Compliance Insights, Dec. 2020).

The importance of tone at the top to a culture of integrity and ethical conduct applies to all organizations, including to the White House. Eight scandal-free years under President Obama was the result of a strong culture that he established in his administration. That culture was based on Obama’s moral compass; his understanding that surrounding himself with people like Eisen was important; and his empowering of them to set guardrails for conduct and to push for what’s right. 

Still, tone at the top and a strong compliance program don’t guarantee that a company will escape all compliance missteps, any more than a president and ethics czar in the White House guarantee a scandal-free administration. A commitment to culture, rooted in the ethical groundwork laid by CEOs and presidents and in the leadership of those they empower, is how you create an environment that promotes and rewards ethical conduct — which, in turn, minimizes scandals and ethics issues.

In November 2008, Obama released a series of ethics guidelines for his transition team. John Podesta, co-chair of the team, said that members would sign an ethics code touted as the most robust ever to apply to a president-elect’s team. Eisen, who served as Obama’s White House Special Counsel for Ethics and Government Reform from 2009 to 2011, synthesized campaign promises into the ethics guidelines Obama signed the day after his inauguration in 2009. The press dubbed Eisen “Mr. No” and the “ethics czar” for his tough anti-corruption approach, and he advised President Obama on lobbying regulation, campaign finance law, and open government issues. 

The result? In a 2016 New York Times article, columnist David Brooks wrote: “The Obama administration has been remarkably scandal-free…. He and his wife have not only displayed superior integrity themselves, they have mostly attracted and hired people with high personal standards.”

When President Trump took office in 2017, Bobby Burchfield, a law firm partner and a Trump insider, was appointed ethics adviser. George Sorial, a lawyer for the Trump Organization since 2007 whose work included Trump University, became Trump’s chief compliance counsel. 

The critics of Trump minced no words. “I don’t know what makes [Burchfield] qualified for that job, but in my experience, he certainly does not have a track record for promoting ethical standards and rules,” said Fred Wertheimer of the watchdog group Democracy 21. According to Eisen, “Contempt for ethics is what led … to a plethora of unethical conduct across the administration.”

Eisen, who also informally assisted Biden’s campaign, said this of the president-elect: “Having personally worked with [Biden], I also know him to be individually of the utmost personal integrity.” In a New York Times opinion column in December, Jack Goldsmith, who co-wrote a book about reconstructing the presidency after Trump, wrote thatso  much of whether … the prestige of the presidency and the dignity of the presidency will be respected isn’t going to depend on legal reform. It’s going to depend on the identity of the person who’s the president. So not everything can be done by law. Some things need to be done by elections.”

President Obama’s reaction to Oprah’s quip reminds us that in the White House, as in the corporate world, we need leaders who stay true to their values— people with fidelity to the truth, guided by a moral compass, and surrounded by strong lieutenants who are prepared to stand up and speak out for what’s right.

About the Author

Lisa Schor Babin spent 17 years at Dun & Bradstreet, most recently as global compliance & ethics leader reporting to the chief compliance officer. Prior to D&B, Babin was vice president and contract negotiator in Goldman Sachs’ technology, licensing and contracts group. She is a certified compliance & ethics professional – international (CCEP-I) and certified compliance & ethics professional (CCEP) since 2014.

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