Dr Jem Bendell
Adjunct Associate Professor, Griffith Business School, Australia
Lala Rimando
Business Editor, Newsbreak magazine, The Philippines
Ms Claire Veuthey
Research Associate, Lifeworth Consulting, Switzerland
Eliot Spitzer: was timing of scandal ‘too convenient’?

Eliot Spitzer: was timing of scandal ‘too convenient’?

Those seeking more leadership from government and judiciary on promoting corporate accountability often praised the work of Eliot Spitzer, when New York State Attorney General. He pursued matters of corporate crime and malpractice, on issues such as price fixing in the technology sector and stock price manipulation in the financial sector, costing companies billions of dollars in fines.1 This is not a man the financial services industry would wish to have around amidst the credit crisis with its requests for unusual support from the government and federal reserve. On 10 March 2008, the New York Times reported that Spitzer was a client of a prostitution ring. Two days later, he announced his resignation as governor of New York, citing ‘private failings’.2 Journalist Greg Palast suggested the timing of the news was too convenient:

While New York Governor Eliot Spitzer was paying an ‘escort’ $4,300 in a hotel room in Washington, just down the road, George Bush’s new Federal Reserve Board Chairman, Ben Bernanke, was secretly handing over $200 billion in a tryst with mortgage bank industry speculators. Both acts were wanton, wicked and lewd. But there’s a BIG difference. The Governor was using his own checkbook. Bush’s man Bernanke was using ours.3

Sex scandals have long been the downfall of politicians. They are less often the downfall of leaders in business and civil society, unless involving children. However, both the growing prominence of such leaders in society, and the widespread use of sex workers in business circles, means that such scandals are likely to arise in future. In February 2008, the role of sex in one of the biggest corruption scandals in Germany came to light.4 In illegal transfers that cost the company 42.5 million, VW worker representatives accepted ‘special bonuses’, such as opulent trips and extravagant nights out involving prostitutes in places such as Brazil and Korea in exchange for favourable policy votes.5 A former German MP, Hans-Jürgen Uhl, and the ex-CEO Ferdinand Piech may also be involved, the newspapers reported. Labour relations have been a source of national German pride, with VW in particular historically being a bastion of worker rights. But the current scandal has exposed the potential risk of close relations between executives and labour leaders. This has led to some to call for a broadening of the concept of corporate responsibility and accountability that has shaped German corporate governance for decades, with the bilateral engagement between management and unions now seen as an insufficient mechanism for socially accountable corporate governance.

This case is not unique. An oil executive was sentenced in February 2008 for awarding his favourite American prostitute a contract to pay for her services with company funds—on top of raiding company coffers for trips to massage parlours and strip clubs.6 The payment of sexual services were also part of the bribes paid by Chinese businessmen to government officials in the Philippines, which we discuss below. Discussions by one of the authors with business people from Geneva to Singapore suggests that corporate hospitality for clients often involves arranging sexual services, and can be facilitated by major hotel companies, through opaque or false billing records.

The question we consider here is not prostitution per se. Its legal status differs from country to country; a particular problem for Elliot Spitzer was that it is illegal in New York State. The moral and pragmatic arguments on how and whether to control the industry also vary. The key issues for corporate responsibility, however, concern corruption, governance, health and gender, as well as the reputational risks involved.

It is widely accepted, and defined in law, that a corporation should not be plying clients or partners with personal gifts, beyond hospitality. This stands whether the bribe consists of an object, straight cash, or a service. All resources a company disburses should be purchases linked to its core business and administrative needs or somehow connected to serving the interests of the organisation’s owners via legal means. Bribery skews the competitive market and sets an unfortunate precedent for business relations; agreements are signed and sales made for the wrong reasons. Bribery within the context of stakeholder relations, particularly when these relations constitute processes of corporate governance, give rise to particular concerns, as revealed in the VW case.

The purchase of sexual services, however, adds insult to injury with a new dimension to institutional responsibility and corporate norms of individual behaviour. Especially where sex tourism is rampant and responsible for the exploitation, trafficking and exposure to disease of millions of children and women, and generally a reflection of a dearth of economic opportunities, and poor education and welfare systems, businesses should take a particularly strong stand against their employees’ use of prostitutes’ services on the company dime. Accepting cultural arguments to excuse using sex workers for business ends is cowardly and opportunistic. Considering bars with sex workers as one might restaurants, in terms of business locales providing a service that can make potential clients feel at ease and see the company favourably, obfuscates the participation in a vicious system of exploitation and social marginalisation; and therefore cannot be equated to a lavish meal out. That line should be clearly drawn. Let’s not forget the risk of contracting and spreading disease, even if using protection: for the ‘beneficiary’, his or her partner at home, and the person providing the service. In addition, business environments that treat such sexual services as a normal way of doing business effectively discriminate against women in their own organisations, who are excluded from the bonds made and deals done in such settings. Moreover, responsible investors may be horrified to learn that what has been charged as ‘food’ at a hotel by a corporate executive was actually sex. Given the reputational risk associated with such practices if they hit the newspapers, there is also a material financial reason for investors to be concerned.

Targeted solutions to such practices are, however, hard to establish. A group of organisations including the UN World Tourism Organisation, Accor Hotels, and NGOs advocating the end of child prostitution, set up the Code of Conduct for the Protection of Children from Sexual Commercial Exploitation in Travel and Tourism in 1997, committing to take steps to help prevent the facilitation of child sexual exploitation. A vital first step is an explicit repudiation of this mode of deal-making by companies themselves, as well as a credible threat of serious sanction for individuals that do not abide by the employer’s code of conduct. The extension of such measures to address the sexist nature of much corporate hospitality is also necessary. Given the large number of women involved in corporate responsibility, it is surprising that sex on expenses, and sexist hospitality more generally, has not yet become more of an issue. Many senior female business travellers have had first-hand experience of returning to a hotel room while the men continue their night in a club. Might some greater solidarity with the women in those bars emerge?

» Olympian graft

(The references are available in the pdf download and hard copy versions of this annual review, available from Lifeworth’s bookstore.)

This section can be referenced as:

Bendell, J., and N. Alam, S. Lin, C. Ng, L. Rimando, C. Veuthey, B. Wettstein (2009) The Eastern Turn in Responsible Enterprise: A Yearly Review of Corporate Responsibility from Lifeworth, Lifeworth: Manila, Philippines.
(Page numbers for this section are available in the pdf download and hardcopy.)

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