Integrity Matters
January 26, 2005

Personal attacks threaten true justice

Question: (E-167)

Dear Jim:

A lawyer for Bernard J. Ebbers, the former chief executive for WorldCom who's accused of securities fraud, won the right last week to use personal details about the prosecution's main witness to discredit him. A federal judge ruled that Ebbers' defense could cite "marital infidelities" by Scott D. Sullivan, WorldCom's former chief financial officer, because it would help jurors assess his reliability.

In corporate fraud cases, is an executive's personal life relevant to determine guilt or innocence? Is the executive's private and personal behavior fair game when looking for ethical deviations?


Crystal-clear responses are always preferred. But there are times when both yes or no appear impossible to divine. Such is the case regarding vetting and discrediting witnesses. The bigger issue is how our society is taking to an extreme -- and thereby putting at risk -- the very structures that enabled America's success with democracy and free enterprise.

Given the willingness, even eagerness, of many people to embarrass, trivialize and root out "rascals" who've made any mistake, eventually no one may want to seek public office, serve on a jury, testify in court or even stop along the road to lend a helping hand.

Self-righteous litmus tests are becoming ever more rigid in the name of openness and tolerance. They extend from political correctness and religiously driven "rightness" to ecological oneness and cultural-racial-sexual-lifestyle sensitivities. In very legitimate efforts to improve all aspects of life, we could set the bar so high that complete compliance is unattainable.

Even the ancient Greek tragedies allowed their heroes a fatal flaw. Today, one might say that "they cut them some slack" and were appreciative of their assets, willing to live with certain frailties.

But neither is this column advocating the philosophy of the former powerful House speaker from Texas, U.S. Rep. Sam Rayburn, who suggested: "To get along, you must go along."

Somewhere between the extremes exists both intelligence and integrity. In other words:

  • Can a convicted felon teach valuable life lessons?
  • Might an alcoholic be a legitimate witness concerning the destructive behaviors of an out-of-control drunk?
  • Does a cheating husband retain enough intelligence and judgment to identify a boss's fraudulent behavior at work?
  • Might a drug user offer valuable testimony against a drug dealer?

With their scorched-earth approach to tearing down witnesses, aggressive attorneys and investigators are coming dangerously close to the unscrupulous lawyer who tries to intimidate a rape victim by delving into her private life.

While such inquisitions are perfectly legal, they may actually short-circuit justice, not to mention common sense. Must someone be above reproach to offer a reproach ?

It's time that all of us demand a clearer distinction from our judicial system between what's legal but destructive, on one hand, and that which is both moral and sustaining of our culture and our values, on the other.

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