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Public, Professional Ethics Under Scrutiny : New Institute Will Explore the Involvement of Individuals in Political and Business Dealings

March 08, 1987|GARRY ABRAMS | Times Staff Writer

Oh, if only Fawn Hall had considered the ethics of helping Lt. Col. Oliver North alter, destroy and remove White House documents in an attempt to cover up the Iran- contra scandal.

This is the lament of Michael Josephson, a millionaire Los Angeles attorney and law professor who has embarked on an ambitious--some say impossible--campaign to make American public and professional conduct more ethical.

Through conferences, seminars, papers and lobbying, Josephson plans "a Ralph Nader-type movement" to take on such ethical issues as insider trading on Wall Street, self-serving foreign policy in Washington and countless other snares that daily tempt doctors, lawyers, accountants, journalists and other citizens such as Fawn Hall.

Josephson, 44, is beginning work on this huge and admittedly nebulous task out of antique-furnished offices in a neo-Victorian office building in Culver City, headquarters of the Josephson Institute for the Advancement of Ethics.

It was there the other day that Josephson, surrounded by relics of another era, pondered the current national scene. He wondered aloud if Hall, a National Security Council secretary and former part-time fashion model, might have benefited from what his institute has to offer. Hall, according to published accounts, helped North change, destroy or cart off large numbers of documents in an attempt to mislead investigators probing the complex scandal involving arms sales to Iran and the funneling of profits from those sales to the contras .

If Hall had "gone through a sensitization program (on ethics), if she would not have destroyed the copies that he (North) wanted her to, notice how that could have changed everything because he would have been afraid of doing it thereafter," Josephson speculated. "It's not like it would have changed him internally, but if his secretary says, 'Mr. North, I think this is wrong, I'm just not going to do this,' he's got to recalculate this whole thing now, doesn't he?"

In fact, Josephson maintained that one brave soul saying no could have prevented much of the scandal that has brought the Reagan Administration to a low ebb.

One Person's Effect

"When somebody was starting to shove money to the contras --and a lot of people had to know about it, you're dealing with a lot of money--if somebody would have said, 'Hey, I think this is wrong and I think I'm going to have to be sure the President knows or the Senate (Intelligence) Oversight Committee knows.' Just one person saying that would have changed the entire dimension," he said.

Might-have-beens aside, Josephson seems deadly earnest about his drive for higher ethical standards. The institute he unveiled in late January is the result of more than 10 years of research and soul-searching, dating from the day when he was assigned to teach a legal ethics class at Loyola University Law School.

"When I taught legal ethics that first time in 1976, I taught it like a code course--these are the rules," he recalled. "The orientation I had as a lawyer was that you teach people how to not get into trouble, how to avoid the rules. So I taught the rules of professional responsibility as if they were some kind of code of taxation. . . . After the year was done and I reflected on it, I said, 'This is awful, I've done a terrible job, I've taught people how to not get into trouble.' . . . One of the reasons lawyers are in such bad shape publicly, I think, and that they're not a very constructive social force is because there's no affirmative ethic that is controlling us. It's all a negative ethic--don't get into trouble and do everything you can get away with."

The institute that eventually emerged from Josephson's introspection is still seeking ways to fulfill its mission. But an agenda is beginning to emerge. It includes two workshops for U.S. Senate and congressional staffers later this spring to "help them anticipate ethical conflicts and nip them in the bud," according to Susan Medalie, a Washington attorney and the institute's East Coast director.

Other projects are a workshop for students and alumni of UC Berkeley's school of public policy, financial and intellectual support for drafting a new code of ethics for judges by the American Bar Assn., and formation of ethical advisory committees for each of the major professions.

Josephson also has assembled a board of directors studded with famous and influential people in law, medicine, labor, journalism, public policy and accounting. They include NBC News diplomatic correspondent Marvin Kalb, former United Auto Workers president Douglas Fraser and Harvard University law professor and television personality Arthur Miller, as well as representatives of the Rand Corp. and experts on medical ethics. Helen Kelley, former president of Immaculate Heart College, is executive director.

'Cynical' Reactions

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