Saturday, February 24, 2018

Greasy palms

In the early 1990's, I had a client from General Motors come to our offices to discuss an advertising/PR project. The usual coffee, bagels and schmear were on the conference room table for morning refreshment. Our friendly, loyal customer said, "Thank you. It looks delicious but, sorry, I can't participate. New rules"

Revamped company policy prevented GM employees from accepting any gifts or any refreshments from their vendors. Not even a donut or a cup of coffee. The recently crowned GM global purchasing czar, J. Ignacio Lopez, dictated an ethical distance between the automaker and its suppliers. He wanted company reps and buyers to be free from any sense of debt or favor toward those who sold to them.  He demanded steep cost reductions and would bid work to more than six sources in hopes of getting them to beat each other up and slash prices to win contracts.

Ironically, Lopez eventually left for Volkswagen along with three other purchasing colleagues who all  faced accusations and lawsuits in the U.S. and Germany. GM alleged they took trade secrets with him.

Although I wasn't a fan of Lopez's excessive bidding processes and ridiculously extreme rules about buying a customer a coffee or a burger, I appreciated the concept of ethics and keeping unsavory gifting or favoritism out of the procurement process. Some suppliers would shower lavish gifts on clients and spend exorbitantly on their client entertainment to cement cozy relationships that were based more on grease than great work. From time to time, you'd hear about employees at corporate giants like GM and Ford who got the boot and their vendors who had to hire lawyers.

This week we watched a high school student grill Republican U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, Florida, challenging him to refuse campaign donations from the National Rifle Association (NRA). Of course, conservative pundits were quick to raise the issue of money from labor unions and other sources that flows to the Democratic Party. Fair rebuttal.

The vicious shooting that left 17 dead in a Parkland, Florida high school last week has definitely turned up the volume on the gun rights debate and it has turned up the heat under politicians who accept NRA money. This controversy could lead to reforming our entire electoral and legislative process and how the money flows around the executive, legislative, and judicial branches at the state and federal levels.

It is beyond me how we continue to allow any politician to accept large campaign donations from any individual, organization or corporation. The U.S. Supreme Court may have declared money speech, but we know what talks and what walks.

To avoid a traffic citation, if I proposed to a traffic cop that I'd donate to the policeman's ball or grease his palm with a contribution to his pension fund, I'd likely be sitting in the back of his cruiser. Yet, a congressman, presidential candidate or political party can accept thousands and thousand of dollars in  so called campaign contributions, year after year. Why should any candidate be able to accept more than $100 from any donor? At that limit, can you imagine how many voters each candidate would have to engage to garner support for office? Politicians would actually have to run on issues and records accomplishments instead of generalizations, lies, partisan red meats, innuendo and mudslinging.

How can we expect elected officials to be free of undue influence as long as we permit them to build huge war chests with funds from special interests? Or take international trips paid for by corporations and lobbyists?

As high school students plan major marches and events to protest gun violence, I can't help but think back on the sixties when non-violent demonstrations by college kids shook the foundations of our government and society contributing to the civil rights movement, ending the Vietnam War, expanding environmental protection and the woman's movement.

The articulate and passionate students from Parkland seem dedicated to fearlessly speaking truth to power and calling a lucrative campaign donation what it is ...  a bribe. Look out. This feels familiar. The times just might be a changin'  ... again.

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