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Get the hell off the beach

Bill Coffin | July 10, 2017

In late October 2011, Superstorm Sandy was barreling down upon the tri-state area with a destructive power that New York and New Jersey had not seen since the “Long Island Express” of 1936—a hurricane that had it happened today would have threatened some $1 trillion of insured property. Despite this, plenty of Garden State beachgoers didn’t take the threat seriously, prompting Governor Chris Christie—known for his blunt speaking manner—to hold a press conference in which he ordered the public: “Get the hell off the beach.”

That was then. This is now. Over the Fourth of July weekend, due to a budget impasse, New Jersey faced a government shutdown of nonessential services, which included all highway rest stops and state parks, and inexplicably, not the gaming authority which allowed casinos to stay open. This angered New Jerseyans enough, but things hit a boiling point when Governor Christie and his family retired to the governor’s summer mansion on Island Beach State Park, next to Seaside Heights—infamous for being both the location of the MTV reality show “Jersey Shore,” and for being the site of the wrecked roller coaster swamped after Superstorm Sandy. On the state’s busiest beach weekend of the year, Seaside’s beaches were packed with people, and Island Beach was empty save for the Governor’s family.

An enterprising Star-Ledger reporter knew Christie had no meetings scheduled for that Sunday, and so he got in a Cessna and overflew the summer mansion. Spotting a few people on the beach, he hung out of the plane and took some telephoto shots, capturing now widely-circulated images of Christie hanging out on a beach chair. The Star-Ledger later asked Christie’s staff if the Governor had caught any sun, knowing full well there was only one answer. By the end of the weekend, some enterprising citizen hired a banner plane to fly over the beach with a sign that read: GET THE HELL OFF THE BEACH. As it passed Seaside, the crowd roared in approval. Within 24 hours, the budget impasse magically disappeared and the state beaches opened once more.

The optics of the event, even by the cynical standards of New Jersey politics, were terrible. Christie’s approval rating was already in the basement, but now it’s at or below 15%, with people of both political parties, including Christie's own Lt. Governor, gobsmacked and outraged at the Governor’s audacity. Christie—still under fire for his Bridgegate scandal, and suffering some of the worst senioritis of any politician in recent history—clearly is not bothered by this. But he should be. One lawmaker is trying to open a formal ethics investigation into what appears to be a pretty flagrant abuse of power. Meanwhile, the entire state is up for election in 2018, and Republicans are already gritting their teeth at having to share the same party as Christie. The guilt by association, whether deserved or not, will be palpable.

This all came at an interesting time in national politics. Lest we forget, DOJ compliance counsel Hui Chen left her position recently and went public with her reasons about it in a LinkedIn post on June 25: she could not stomach working for an administration that had what she considered to be some serious legal and ethical conflicts in question. Not long after, the head of the Office of Congressional Ethics, Walter Shaub, stepped down from his post. Shaub, as you’ll remember, gained national attention for his efforts to needle President Trump into fully divesting his business interests. Trump still hasn’t done so despite the fact that his Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, provided a fine example to follow when he fully divested himself of his interest in Exxon, which he ran before being tapped for public service. Shaub, it would appear, knew he had no real power to push Trump to do the right thing, and once it became clear he was essentially howling at the ocean over ethics, decided to move on. Against this kind of backdrop, a state-turned-national story like Christie’s beach misadventure adds to a growing collection of ethics breaches seen in the highest offices of the nation that is disappointing and depressing to behold.

Ethics and compliance is increasingly converging as a professional discipline. As the transactional side of compliance can be automated, the future for compliance officers is in the ethics space, where they can work at a higher level to drive a better, stronger organizational culture. An ethical business is one with a lighter compliance burden because its people are already doing right simply because they are repelled by the idea of breaking the rules. That’s one of the most attractive things about this profession—its dedication not just to following the rules, but to upholding right over wrong. As long as we can expect our governmental leaders to eschew even the most basic tests of their ethical fiber, then it falls to leaders in business to lead the way when it comes to putting morality in practice. Thankfully, there are plenty of folks out there who have been at it for a while, and who are not going to stop any time soon. You know who you are. You are everywhere. And you are needed more now than ever before.