Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Lemming Tracks: Gulf Oil and Caesar's Wife

"Oil rig inspectors took company gifts, watchdog finds"
CNN (May 25, 2010)

"Federal inspectors overseeing oil drilling in the Gulf of Mexico accepted meals and tickets to sporting events from companies they monitored, according to a new report from the Interior Department's inspector general.

"In one case, an inspector in the Minerals Management Service office in Lake Charles, Louisiana, conducted inspections of four offshore platforms while negotiating a job with the company, the report states. Others in the same office accepted tickets to the 2005 Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, a college football bowl game. One inspector said, 'Everyone has gotten some sort of gift before at some point' from companies they regulated, according to the report.

" 'Through numerous interviews, we found a culture where the acceptance of gifts from oil and gas companies were widespread throughout that office,' the report states. But that culture waned after a supervisor in the agency's New Orleans, Louisiana, regional office was fired for taking a gift from a regulated company in 2007...."

The Lemming thought of posting something about this in Starting a Small Business Without Losing My Mind, but that didn't seem to make much sense. I'm a sole proprietorship with no budget for bribery - and no reason or inclination to corrupt public officials.

The Lemming's 'no-bribe' policy isn't entirely a matter of ethics. I've studied history - and the final outcome of that sort of thing is generally messy and terminal.

Back to federal inspectors, Gulf oil drilling, and really stupid business practices.

In the short term, giving gifts to federal inspectors must have seemed like a good idea. They liked it, the practice created a sort of social bond between the inspectors and the company officials they worked with, and when there was trouble those gifts may (or may not) have made the inspectors more willing to overlook problems.

In an ideal world, there would be no problem with tipping inspectors. The people involved would do their jobs, anyway: the inspectors finding problems, the company officials seeing to it that the problems were fixed. Before an oil rig blew up.

What, No Rant About BP, Big Oil, and All That?

This CNN article is almost certainly the result, directly or indirectly, of that British Petroleum disaster in the Gulf. There's an incredible mess to clean up (or, possibly, burn off), lives were lost - and the powers that be need someone to blame. Fast.

"Big Oil" is an obvious bad guy in this scenario: latter-day sons of Snidely Whiplash, callously corrupting federal officials. Judging from that CNN article, there was a problem with what looks a whole lot like bribery.

Don't get me wrong: I think that giving gifts to an official whose job it is to inspect your operation is really, really stupid. But I recognized that it's possible for someone to think of the practice as something in the neighborhood of 'good public relations' or 'establishing a smooth working relationship.'

I still think it's stupid.

But I'm not going to rant about "Big Oil." Or "Big Government," for that matter. That earthquake in Haiti showed what happens when you don't have rules about how buildings are built. I'm no big fan of regulations - but building codes, for example, make sense. When their standards aren't insanely impossible to match.

That's another topic.

We have companies that are large, and that build drilling platforms in the gulf. Some of them are run by people who are too stupid or foolish to realize that it costs more, in the long run, to cut corners on safety. That's where those federal inspectors come it.

In an ideal world, sixties style, we wouldn't worry about oil, or government, or energy - we'd just live on love and honey. That's not gonna happen. We've got this huge, technological civilization because 'living with nature' involved to much disease, hunger and discomfort to be much fun.

Yet another topic.

Federal Inspectors and the Principle of Caesar's Wife

A big lesson, I think, from this mess is that people in some positions, like the folks who inspect drilling rigs, have to be like Caesar's wife: impeccably free of suspicion, above reproach.

That doesn't mean that folks are supposed to look the other way, when a federal inspector gets a ticket to the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl. It means that the inspector should refuse the ticket - and make sure that all parties concerned realize that the inspector accepts no gifts. Period.

The proverbial "Caesar's wife must be above reproach" refers back to the livelier days of Rome, when Roman aristocracy made the British royal family's shenanigans, or the Clinton White House, look like a Sunday social. In that setting, the wife of Caesar had to behave in a way that allowed no rumored scandal to be believable: much less provable.

That sort of impeccably by-the-book behavior hasn't been popular for a while - but maybe it's time to edge back to a somewhat more buttoned-down approach.
A tip of the hat to CNN_Networks, for the heads-up on their article.

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