Published 11/12/15

Panelists call upon students to focus on ethical leadership

Phil West at 2015 Ethics event Rhode Island will not attract new businesses until the state establishes an Ethics Commission, says Alan Hassenfeld ‘85H, chairman of the Executive Committee of Hasbro, Inc., the Rhode Island-based multibillion-dollar international toy company.

“No one is coming in while it’s still the Wild West here,” he said.

Hassenfeld, whose passion to improve the state’s political climate and governance led him to establish the Hassenfeld Institute for Public Leadership at Bryant University, was one of the heroes of the Rhode Island reform movement featured during Bryant’s fifth annual ethics event, “Getting the Government We Deserve.” The Hassenfeld Institute, he said, was founded as a tool to “help the next generation become better leaders, more ethical leaders.”

A call for an Ethics Commission

Joining Hassenfeld, a former Bryant trustee and honorary degree recipient, at the forum were:

  • former R.I. Auditor Gen. Ernest Almonte´78, ´85 MST, ´09H;
  • former R.I. Atty. Gen. Arlene Violet;
  • former executive director of Common Cause RI Phil West (above), whom the Providence Journal once dubbed “the godfather of political reform in Rhode Island" and who was at the center of citizen agitation for the reform of Rhode Island politics and government;
  • former U.S. Congressman and R.I. Lt. Gov. Robert Weygand.

"To you of the next generation, please get involved.”

The panelists looked back at political scandals Rhode Island has faced, including the collapse of state-insured credit unions in 1990 and a questionable state financing deal that soured with the bankruptcy of video-game developer 38 Studios.

“We need to ... tell political leaders once again it’s about time we have an Ethics Commission," said Hassenfeld. "To you of the next generation,” he said looking directly at the students, “please get involved.”

“It’s so important for you to be part of the solution,” agreed Violet. “Live right. Show you can do it without being a cheat. And don’t put up with any garbage.”

Difficult choices in unexpected ways

Weygand told students the invitation to join in corruption will come when they least expect it.

A landscape architect who had won a bid for work in Pawtucket, Weygand was asked by the mayor to add $5,000 to the contract for “cost overruns.” The mayor would get $3,000, Weygand $2,000, and no one would know. 

He had three choices: Do it and be a criminal; say no and lose the contract; or make a stand and report what was going on to law enforcement.

“I could not do this,” Weygand recalled. But, he said, it wasn’t easy to wear a wire for the FBI to build the case that would eventually bring down the corrupt enterprise.

Corruption isn’t only a byproduct of politics. “Look at Volkswagen, WorldCom," said Almonte, now a partner with RSM US LLP, a leading provider of audit, tax and consulting services throughout the United States. “I’ve seen even honest people do the wrong thing."

As the state’s auditor general, Almonte, who trained as an accountant, was determined to provide nonpartisan, non-ideological, fact-based reports. On the back of the business cards for everyone in the office, he listed the department’s core values. Integrity was number one. 

Almonte’s formula was simple: hire good people and teach them ethical standards; establish a system where people are watching what’s going on so that nothing is done in secret; and make the penalty for violating the ethical code so great that people won’t be tempted.

“No one ever questioned the work that came out of that office,” he said with pride.

At the conclusion of the panel discussion, Professor of Political Science John W. Dietrich, Ph.D., chair of Bryant’s History and Social Sciences Department, left the students in the audience with a question: Twenty-five years from now, are you going to be up here, a proud graduate, a champion for reform?