The recent conviction of insider trader Raj Rajaratnam highlights the casual way some people in the world practice ethical behavior. Several Utahns have earned the moniker “Ethically Challenged” because of business and personal practices.
Utah has had several high profile lapses in proper behavior, resulting in pain and loss for the innocent and the guilty. The following are the top 10 ethical meltdowns in Utah, ranked in order of seriousness of the lapse and resulting problems.
Beginning in 1980, Mark Hofmann laid claims to discovering multiple documents that purported to be from the early days of LDS Church history. His first “find” was the Anthon Transcript, which was soon followed by the Joseph Smith III Blessing, the Salamander Letter and various other documents. Hofmann’s coup de grace was the M’Lellin papers which were to be sold to private buyers and then donated to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Unfortunately, the papers and other artifacts either did not exist or were excellent forgeries made in Hofmann’s basement and which fooled the best examiners of the time. As things spiraled down, Hofmann resorted to murder in an attempt to prevent discovery of his plotting. Kathleen Sheets and Steven Christensen paid the price for Hofmann’s dive into unethical behavior with their lives. Others, like Gary Sheets and Mac Christensen, were left to pick up the pieces and try to make sense of the events.
After multiple attempts – beginning in 1932 – to bring the Winter Olympic Games to Salt Lake City, organizing committee members determined a change in strategy was needed. Following the example of other successful cities, the leaders of the Salt Lake City Olympic movement loosened the purse strings in an effort to procure the votes needed to be named the host for the 2002 Winter Olympic Games. International Olympic Committee members were given ski and Super Bowl trips, scholarships, jobs and possibly even cash incentives to entice them to choose Salt Lake City in the next vote. When Salt Lake City was named the host of the 2002 Winter Games, 50,000 people gathered at City Hall to celebrate. For some, the joy was short-lived as an investigation was opened into the bidding process and the methods used to secure votes. Two members of the SLOC were charged with multiple counts of bribery and fraud but were eventually acquitted on all charges. Although no legal penalties were enforced, the International Olympic Committee changed several rules and replaced some members because of the scandal.
Stanley Pons, who was a professor at the University of Utah, and Martin Fleischmann shocked the world in 1989 when they announced they had successfully created cold fusion. The fanfare and anticipation accompanying the announcement brought great renown to Pons and Fleischmann and to put the University of Utah on the map as a legitimate research facility. The UofU even asked Congress for $25 million in research funds to pursue the possibilities of this new form of energy. When other researchers tried to duplicate the results reported by Pons and Fleischmann, they discovered they could not generate anything close to the reported levels of energy. Almost as quickly as it blossomed, the “great white hope” of cold fusion was derailed and became the laughingstock of the scientific world. The reputations of both researchers were reduced to jokes on late-night television despite their continued efforts to prove their work viable. Improper techniques in research led to the downfall of two respected scientists, a black mark against the University of Utah and the devaluing of a once hopeful source of power.
In 1974, Allan Howe was nominated by the Democratic Party of Utah to represent that party in the general election for the office of United States Congressman, District Two. After a difficult and close battle, Howe defeated Republican Stephen Harmsen and was sent to Washington to represent Utah. Two years later, Howe was in the midst of a seemingly successful reelection campaign when he was arrested for solicitation of a prostitute and convicted of the charge. In spite of the pleas of his party, Howe remained in the race for the congressional seat and was defeated by Dan Marriott by a wide margin. Howe never held office again in Utah.
The Four Corners area of Utah was the site of a sad case in poor decision making. Twenty-four residents of the area were arrested for desecrating and possessing ancient Indian artifacts that were protected by law. While it was common practice in the area to collect these trinkets, the federal government had deemed those who collected such items to be in violation of the law. After a two-year investigation, the 24 individuals were arrested and charged with violations. Sadly, two of those charged chose to take their lives rather than pay the price for their ethical fall.
Who knew buying a lawnmower could be such a difficult proposition. Mayor Mike Embley of West Valley City visited the downtown Sears store in early 1987 to purchase a new mower for his family when he was arrested for propositioning a decoy police officer. Embley’s explanation of the circumstances did not sit well with his constituents and he resigned and did not finish the balance of his term as mayor.
Three Utah gasoline companies found themselves on the wrong side of a price-fixing lawsuit for their actions in 1984. Holiday Oil, Metro Products and Triangle Oil were accused of conspiring to fix prices in the Salt Lake City area. Thousands of customers were enraged at the actions of the companies and demanded they pay for their deceit. The U.S. District Court of Utah charged all three companies with anti-trust violations and eventually reached an agreement that exacted penalties from all the companies involved. Customers were given coupons allowing them to purchase items from the three companies at a discounted price. No cash refunds were given for those who were cheated by the actions of the businesses.
Claiming to run a successful aviation company, Ronald Fisher used his talents to bilk banks and investors out of millions of dollars (see here). When investigators arrested him they discovered he had been flying clients to different locations without the benefit of a pilot’s license. Charges against him included wire fraud, false statements to a banking institution and interstate transport for the purposes of fraud. Interestingly enough, Fisher was on probation after serving prison time for a similar fraud in the 1990’s. Seems some people just don’t get the idea of doing things right.
The BYU Cougars would probably like to forget the 1996-1997 basketball season. Besides finishing the season with a single win against Utah State, Coach Roger Reid was fired and star player Brian Ruffner dismissed from the team after being accused of felony theft. Ruffner, a projected starter and second leading scorer from the previous year, confessed to taking part in bilking a Provo company out of $200,000. After his conviction and payment of restitution, Ruffner attempted to become a professional basketball player. The fall from grace was hard and swift, but at least he tried to make things right.
Computer glitches can be a real pain if they involve banking and finance. One Utah couple thought they had found a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow when Utah Bank and Zion’s Bank made an error in the amount of $12 million. Steve and Diane Christensen found themselves with the extra money when the two banks botched an electronic transfer of accounts between each other in 1998. Instead of notifying the banks of the mistake, the Christensens spent the money on homes, cars, clothes and other parts of the fine life. A civil suit followed and, in 2002, federal investigators filed charges related to the event and pursued legal action against the Christensens. In 2005 the Christensens pleaded guilty to fraud in federal court.
Neglecting to practice ethical behavior at work and at home usually brings unhappy consequences. Choosing to be honest invites a happier ending.
Mike Whitmer is a teacher and former businessman living in West Valley City. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his blog at mtwhitmer.blogspot.com.