Do Our Leaders Need a Slap in the Conscience?
Former Nixon White House Plumber Egil Krogh Offers and Ethics Toolbox
by Lisa Baker
Krogh may be the corporate version of Dr. Laura. Kinder, gentler, but
a slap in the conscience just the same.
era of excess, of WorldCom, Enron, and Capital Consultants, the executive
streets are littered with ethics shed like clothes during a Mardi Gras
the “day after” friend who will sober you up, walk you back
to the straight and narrow. Tell you to eat your peas and “go do
the right thing” before something really nasty happens.
it happened to Krogh—whose name you might remember.
Lapse from the Past
Krogh, former aide to Richard Nixon, was the first of the Nixon administration
to serve prison time in a series of ethical lapses and criminal acts that
soured the country on the integrity of its governance system.
to the Nixon White House from his home in Seattle, Washington. Now a Northwest
attorney in good standing, Krogh, rather than being eager to shed his
past, is sharing it as a way of calling careerists to account.
the talk he offers is not a glamour seminar, and may dwell on the painful
and difficult, but careerists in government and in private sector businesses
are listening with rapt attention.
In the past
two years, Krogh has become a sought-after speaker at executive retreats
and workshops, called on by Rotary clubs, universities, bar associations
and government decision-makers on the subject of workplace ethics: How
to keep yours when others are losing theirs. How to listen for the low-level
noise of standards being compromised before you hear the roar of the crowd
outside your arraignment. Or the gurgling sound of your company’s
stock circling the drain.
been out of law school for only three months when he became assistant
to Nixon’s White House counsel, John Ehrlichman.
But he didn’t
remain a mere assistant. Within six months, he was named deputy counsel
to the president and in six months more, became his deputy assistant for
domestic affairs in charge of fixing Washington D.C.’s rampant drug
came his way quickly. Transportation, corrections, higher education. Despite
his youth and inexperience, observers said his work on domestic issues
resulted in rarely seen productivity on complex problems.
of Krogh’s assignments could match the adrenalin rush of being assigned
to investigate the leak of classified documents from the Pentagon
Papers were a history of U.S. involvement in Vietnam—an unknown
history to most Americans, a history far removed from what the government
had been telling its citizens about the role of the U.S. in Southeast
Asia. Covert actions before the war, early and active military support
for South Vietnam, and the dramatic escalation of American involvement
over time. The Pentagon Papers were proof that U.S. presidents had been
lying, and lying by omission, about Vietnam for decades.
not read the documents when he was assigned to blunt their effect. But
he believed what he was told—that the release of the papers threatened
national security, and that plugging future leaks was
a national priority.
was to find out everything about the leaker himself, Daniel Ellsberg,
a defense department employee who gave the papers to the media and was
rumored to have ties to the Soviet Union.
team, the so-called White House Plumbers, went to work on Ellsberg, seeking
to plug the leak and discredit him. At the suggestion of E. Howard Hunt,
team member and former CIA operative, Krogh and his superior, Ehrlichman,
each signed off on a plan to break into the office of Ellsberg’s
psychiatrist and collect files relating to Ellsberg.
At the time,
Krogh recalls, it was suggested as a covert action, not a burglary. An
action designed to protect national security. He was assured that such
activities were “by no means extraordinary” by the CIA abroad,
and later, by the FBI at home.
On a weekend
in 1971, the California office of Dr. Lewis Fielding was ransacked, but
not one file on Ellsberg could be found.
saw pictures of the detritus left by his plumbers, Krogh saw in it the
unmistakable hallmarks of a low-level criminal event. A common burglary.
“The visibility of physical damage was somehow disturbing beyond
the theoretical impression of covert activity,” he later told reporters.
to authorize any further covert activities. But they went on without him,
as he discovered months later, when Democratic National Committee headquarters
at the Watergate were burglarized and those arrested were traced back
to the White House.
It was the
investigation of Watergate that blew the cover off the earlier burglary
and spurred the downfall of Krogh, the plumbers and the cover-up that
ended the Nixon presidency.
an end for Krogh, however, it was the beginning of a long trek to redemption.
would have been a no-brainer: national security. Ellberg’s actions
put peace negotiations in jeopardy. Classified documents were classified
for a reason and Ellsberg had broken his oath to keep them secret. It
was treason. At least, that’s what the White House position was.
But in the
end, Krogh did the unthinkable. He surrendered completely, relinquishing
any semblance of a defense. He told the judge that he should be convicted
for his actions and that he would accept whatever penalty the court imposed
and would serve it “as well and as effectively and as honorably
as I can.” But he didn’t explain. Didn’t say what he
was thinking when he authorized the tossing of Fielding’s office.
That, he said, would make it seem as if he were attempting to gain leniency
in his sentence.
did say was that he appreciated the painful process of investigation and
indictment and public outing because it was, in his view, “clearing
away of much of the wrong thinking, the mistakes in judgment, the qualities
of character that need to be cleared away before we can stand again as
It won him
saint status in the eyes of his prosecutors, one of whom, years later,
would be instrumental in helping him win the return of his law license,
which had been revoked as a result of the conviction.
He was sentenced
to six months in federal prison. After sentencing, he offered a detailed
account of the decision making that led to the break-in, but blamed no
one but himself for what he now believed was a failure to uphold a sacred
trust to protect individual rights.
But he wasn’t
done. After his release from prison, he met with Ellsberg, and separately
with Fielding, and apologized to each man. The repentance was apparently
so thorough that he and Ellsberg—a man he knew not at all at the
time of the break-in—are now friends.
He has since
issued other apologies—to the public, and to Nixon himself, in a
two-hour meeting in 1974, at the president’s San Clemente office
just weeks after the resignation.
president, still facing criminal indictment for the cover-up, asked Krogh
a key question: “‘Should I plead guilty?’”
30 years later, he regrets the answer he gave. “I asked him if he
seemed, was not convinced he had done anything wrong. If the conversation
were to happen today, Krogh says, he would urge him to plead guilty and
argue that it was an opportunity to “demonstrate that no man is
above the law.”
years have provided Krogh with time to rethink, re-examine and retrace
his missteps, and to figure out how he came up with the wrong answer after
a straight-laced upbringing.
have led to the formulation of a sort of ethical toolbox, one he hopes
will help others tease morality from multiple strands of seemingly equal
he realizes that his youth and inexperience were contributing factors
to his error, but believes that young executives can learn to filter their
orders through a moral prism before acting. They can look for the warning
begins, Krogh instructs, with an integrity test for underlying assumptions.
Are they based on demonstrable proof or on simple belief? In 1971, he
says, White House leaders termed the release of the Pentagon Papers a
“crisis” and a “threat.” Two charged words guaranteed
to invite an overwhelming degree of force, Krogh says. “I felt it
was not my job to question the president’s assumptions. It was not
in my job description.”
he now sees that the Pentagon Papers were a threat not to national security,
but to the president’s vision. “What I was involved in was
group think. It’s not just a pop psych term, it’s a real phenomenon.”
when a leader, in a room of underlings, provides the underlying assumption
upon which all solutions must be based. Staffers are not invited to peck
at the foundation, but to simply build on it. And for the most part, staffers
are willing to do so. “For the most part, people want to be part
of the team,” Krogh says. “They don’t want to say something
Krogh advises executives and leaders to avoid expressing their own beliefs
at the outset, to instead invite all viewpoints in defining the problem,
even if it means taking a staffer outside a meeting room to get an individual,
Krogh says he urges executives to then second-guess the proposed and most
popular course of action and ask two questions about it: Is it morally
right, and is it good? Good for the country, good for the company. Does
it commit a wrong in order to affect a right? Does it hurt anyone? Does
a look into the future: Will the action still be good and right in a year?
Are there second and third-order consequences? Can it be done incrementally,
with each step evaluated before moving on to the next? Krogh says it’s
possible to take each variable through all of the possible outcomes and
still miss something. “But you do it to the best of your ability,”
he says. “There are limits to your ability to predict.”
The Nixon administration, in its creation of environmental laws—clean
air and clean water regulations—never knew it was also laying the
groundwork for a never-ending stream of lawsuits. Lawsuits that are now
the basis of an entire sector of professions. “We created the environmental
lawsuit industry,” Krogh says.
If a proposed
action would damage an innocent, the question must be asked: Is there
another way? “Our target, Dr. Fielding, was a complete innocent,”
Krogh says. “And yet we never asked if there was any other way.
The question never came up.”
Krogh finds himself in the thick of things once again, facilitating the
creation of a Regional Transmission Organization in the Northwest that
would streamline transmission of electricity while at the same time providing
a mechanism for deregulation of the power industry. It is a sticky and
complicated business, one intended to prevent the supply shortages and
price hikes of 2001, while at the same time ensuring that each company
in the grid gets equal treatment. Accountability and autonomy at the same
as the venture would be called, is in its third iteration already, the
two previous efforts having failed to strike the balance some companies
were looking for.
In the post-Enron
era, there is probably no hotter place to be than brokering an association
of energy interests.
the lessons of his past and a more contemporary history of Enron’s
collapse often play in the back of his mind, prompting him to look for
those second and third-order consequences of decisions. Causing him to
focus and encourage opposition opinions.
in the room know Krogh’s history, but most have worked with him
for 20-odd years. It has ceased to be an issue.
But he occasionally
makes light of his past, joking, “Is anyone taping this? I’m
a little sensitive about taping.”
invited him as a speaker say there is a need for people like Krogh. Questions
of ethics and integrity are a daily occurrence in the work world—not
because people are innately dishonest or on the take, but because so many
little decisions seem innocuous. Or certainly “not extraordinary”
enough to warrant such serious analysis.
consequences of a trip-up are so ruinous that companies across the country
are paying for independent agencies to help their workers blow the whistle
on their supervisors or colleagues.
a Portland-based company formed in 2000, is making a business of providing
secure online reporting systems to corporations. Would-be whistle-blowers
can report anonymously with the guarantee that their complaints will be
relayed to someone not implicated in the alleged ethical breach.
spokesman for the company, says that while it has benefited from a new
federal law, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which requires publicly traded companies
to set up such reporting systems, exempt companies are signing up as well.
about 700 companies have enrolled in EthicsPoint programs. Halasy says
he believes it’s because the consequences of an ethical eruption
are so dire and the benefits of due diligence so obvious.
investors want to see that a company has a plan for ensuring compliance
and preventing fraud and inappropriate workplace behavior—the kind
of failures that invite criminal investigations and lawsuits. EthicsPoint
officials point to a February study by Institutional Shareholder Services
showing a direct relationship between tight corporate governance and stock
companies are signing up, Halasy says, “because they realize how
dependent they are on their good reputation. They’ve seen a lot
of organizations wracked by scandal and they want the public to know they’re
taking every precaution.”
officials, too, see the need for an ethical blueprint.
executive director of the Washington State Association of Sewer &
Water Districts, says ethics conundrums surface constantly, which is why
he invited Krogh to speak at the group’s spring conference this
the boards handle only local issues, ethical compromises affect the taxpayers
and people’s trust in government, and they happen all the time in
small government. “Some are intentional,” he says. “Some
are due to lack of knowledge.”
they involve elected officials who attempt to do the public’s business
in private, either misunderstanding open meetings laws or resenting them
because they can compromise an official’s desire to be re-elected.
Schlomann says, are truly trying to “enrich themselves” using
their public positions. While he’s uncertain as to whether these
people can be converted, he says Krogh’s cautionary tale might well
the Washington state auditor’s liaison to local governments, sees
similar ethical lapses. Himself a former liquor board commissioner, he
knows elected officials are constantly offered opportunities to compromise
the public’s trust.
time he was offered a tour of Scotland on the dime of a scotch whiskey
company hoping to win the favor of the board.
vendors often pay the travel expenses of liquor control commissioners
to conferences at posh locations. “The meetings alternate locations
but to be sure, they’re not in Cleveland during wintertime,”
companies pay airfare, but in some states, commissioners still turn in
expense reports for the mileage expenses they never accumulated—up
to $1,800 for some conferences. Washington state put the kibosh on the
practice, but Murphy says, “I know it’s still going on in
some states. It’s quite a scam.”
plenty of smaller ticket items—tickets to a Seahawks game, lunch
out, dinner out. Most of the time, he says, elected officials don’t
think their votes are being bought, but they are.
are agencies whose employees “borrow” money from the public
till and fail to pay it back, use public vehicles for private use, steal
gas from the motor pool or equipment from the office. Murphy says most
of these are caught by other public employees. “Ninety-nine percent
of the time they’re not intending to steal. They think they’ll
pay it back, but then they get behind and don’t.”
he sees worse sins in private companies, such as independent auditors
who delete references to accounting malpractices to avoid losing lucrative
not a popular message at a time when the “Survivor” mentality
is in vogue and business people are engrossed in voting others off the
island. Who would volunteer, for the greater good, to be the Weakest Link?
when proper use of Krogh’s moral toolbox points to an imminent ethical
it is a worker’s responsibility to do what is right. Even if it
costs something, or everything,
a challenge Krogh puts before law school students. What if your supervisor
asks you to compromise a professional standard and your supervisor happens
to be your mentor, who also happens to be your uncle who put you through
law school? What if he’s in charge of approving candidates for partner?
be amazed how often this kind of thing happens,” he says.
of course, is to stand up and do the right thing, knowing you could lose
your job, your livelihood, and an important relationship.
be worse to simply compromise and preserve yourself? Yes, insists Krogh.
It may not appear so, but he says, “honor is fundamental to your
And if you
don’t believe that, believe this, Krogh says: “It’s
a terrible way to live, having been caught.”
Krogh is the author of “The Day Elvis Met Nixon,” Pejama Press,
1994. He is in private practice at Seattle-based Krogh & Leonard.
BrainstormNW - Nov 2004