This is an interesting post that went up on the Houston Chronicle website on January 19 from Chris Tomlinson. It describes a new show about Enron and it reminded me of the fact that many current Houstonians weren’t here when the jobs and pensions of thousands were tossed into the streets by the avarice and arrogance of a few at the top of a corporation that was essentially a sham. It’s all described in the book The Smartest Guys in the Room by McLean and Elkind:
This book and the film made from it are both worth your time.
I cannot do justice to the story of Enron’s downfall, but I can talk about one aspect of it, the involvement of MD Anderson in the Enron scandal.
The institution itself was not part of Enron although it was a grateful recipient of its charity and Ken Lay, the Chairman and CEO of Enron, was on the Board of Visitors and actually visited MD Anderson AFTER the fall as that is when I saw him on the 11th floor where the president’s office used to be located. It’s that president and his predecessor who drew MD Anderson into the Enron controversy as they were both on the board of Enron when the fall occurred. The details of their involvement with the decisions that led to the collapse of the company are sketchy. They would have to be. I am sure lawyers worked hard and were paid well to make it so and, after all, what were two doctors doing on a corporate board of an energy trading company anyway?
Even this is peripheral to my involvement with whistleblowing.
Shortly after the time of the Enron collapse and the realization that the leaders of MD Anderson were caught up in a corporate scandal, the president at the time was caught in yet another.
It seems he developed a new drug against cancer that was being tested at MD Anderson by faculty who reported up to him (as all faculty do) when none of the 195 people on the trial testing the drug were made aware of the president’s holdings in the company whose value the success of the research could greatly enhance. It was this event that spurred the local press into full battle mode about conflict of interest and guess who had to face that press? That’s right, me!
I hemmed and hawed and danced around the issue but the fact was that in the early 2000’s conflict of interest had not yet risen as an issue like it has now and we were caught flat-footed. I was castigated in editorials in the Chronicle along with the president as I was the one who was the media face of what was viewed as the institutional deceit of human subjects.
I do not know what the proudest moment was in my career, but this was my “least proudest” moment. I should have quit as a Vice President right then and let someone else, maybe the president, answer for his behavior. I did nothing wrong except not standing up for what was right. I have regretted this all of the days since. I swore that I would never do it again.
It should be noted that the leadership was grateful for my taking the bullets and I kept my job for many more years until finally being fired in 2007. So, I was ethically compromised, but not financially so.
Flash forward to 2014.
Then I was the acting Chief Medical Officer at Legacy Community Health, a federally-qualified health clinic, the largest of its kind in Houston. The physicians who reported to me were up in arms because they were being pressed to see more and more patients in less and less time per patient.
To test the validity of their complaints, I made myself a patient and began to understand their problem. I filled out a detailed form with my history, but the doctor who was assigned to me never saw the form before she saw me in the examining room. Thus, she spent the majority of the 15 minutes she was allotted to assess me, a 66-year old man with a history of coronary disease and several back operations, asking me the same questions again with a computer in her lap, typing away.
My exam was perfunctory. I did not shed my tie or my shirt as her stethoscope flew across my upper body. I think that I had to hold my breath for her to hear my heart at the same time I was taking a deep breath so she could assess my pulmonary function.
As a doctors’ visit, it was a joke, not because she wasn’t capable, but because she wasn’t allowed sufficient time to actually get to know me.
(And for those of you who are curious, I was not examined below the waist, which is just silly if the patient is a 66-year old man.)
I began to learn of story after story like mine by talking to the doctors for whom I was supposed to be an advocate and actually seeing some patients myself to assist the caregivers who needed to have some time to think about what they saw in clinic.
My complaints to management finally strained my relationship with the powers that were and I was fired. I should have been. I could not tolerate the level of care being offered under my aegis and if that is what management wanted (and management consisted of no physicians), I could not deliver on this. I may have lost my job, but I kept my word to myself. When confronted with what I believed to be wrong, I did not shirk my duty to blow the whistle.
The lesson is that if you want to keep your job, keep your whistle in your pocket. If you want to do what’s right, well, there may be a price to pay.
Of course, two of the leaders of Legacy were felons convicted in the Enron scandal, so I kind of rubbed up against those with ethical judgment issues pretty closely. I paid with my job and I couldn’t be prouder.
Whistleblowing is not for the faint of heart or short of change. It can cost you your job and make you unemployable. No matter what “ethics offices” say about your ability to report anything anonymously, don’t believe it. I tried that too while at Anderson and got nowhere when my confidential communications were used against me.
It is the nature of our corporate culture to protect the corporation above all else, but what if those who knew the problems inherent in Enron had spoken up sooner? Could the company have been saved? We will never know, but just know when you are faced with such a choice, there are no good options or guarantees of the right move.
I am available for consults, however, even if they just are psychotherapeutic. You can’t beat my prices! Call any time.