Let's Sue Corporate Killers and Then Put Them In Prison; The VA Scandal Gets Bigger

GELFAND’S WORLD-As a nation, we pay lip service to the idea of the heroic whistle blower, but we are all being made hypocrites because of actions at the highest levels of our government. And none of it is a secret -- you don't have to be paranoid to believe in this conspiracy. You just have to look at the excellent story in the New York Times about how deep the VA scandal runs. It's a lot worse than the superficial stories about delayed appointment schedules. It reveals that there is a toxic culture from top to bottom. The deeper question we need to ask ourselves is whether our governmental system as a whole rewards toxic corporate cultures, both in private business and in government. The answer is literally a matter of life and death to some people. 

The Times story, by Eric Lichtblau, makes clear that the VA scandal is a lot more than the coverup over scheduling. Doctors who complained about patient safety got disciplined or outright fired. Here's just one example: 

“In court filings detailing the V.A. response to other problems, Dr. Ram Chaturvedi, formerly with the Dallas V.A. Medical Center, said that he began complaining in 2008 about shoddy patient care, including negligence by nurses who had marked the wrong kidney while preparing a patient for a procedure. In another instance, Dr. Chaturvedi said medical personnel had brought the wrong patient to an operating table.

A supervisor told Dr. Chaturvedi to “let some things slide” because of staffing problems, but he continued writing up complaints. Officials considered him disruptive and fired him in 2010.” 

The wrong kidney. The wrong patient. 

If nothing else, when a mistake like this is caught, the institution is supposed to figure out why it happened and how to make sure it never happens again. I'm not familiar with any regulation that says that doctors should let things slide when the wrong patient is put on the operating table. These are the sorts of problems that modern medicine has already solved. The medical literature is full of articles about how to solve them, including something as simple as using checklists. Even the television show ER had a plot line about the introduction of the checklist system in the operating room. 

It gets worse. 

The same New York Times article mentions an extracurricular outrage now being perpetrated by the VA. It involves a very nasty little attack on an organization called the Project on Government Oversight.  

The POGO organization (which I had never heard of before) appears to be a classic do-gooder organization, respected in journalism, whose major offense has been to collect the stories of VA whistle blowers. POGO vows to adhere to the standard journalistic practice of protecting its sources. The VA Inspector General wants to break through that wall of protection and gain the identities of POGO's informants through the use of a subpoena. What an old, dreary idea, offensive and dangerous to our liberties. 

This one is an easy call, and you should all be making it to your congressional representatives. Tell them to tell the VA to lay off of the Project on Government Oversight. And then, tell them to look seriously at the toxic culture at the VA which has enabled not only the scheduling scandal, but other outrages as well. Down at the bottom of this article, I've included a link that should make it easy for you to find the phone number of your own congressman just by typing in your zip code. 

Since we are on the topic of high level hypocrisy and ways that it can get you killed, we shouldn't skip an excellent story in Governing.com.  It explains how General Motors killed more than a dozen people by engaging in a corporate culture which might best be described as "don't rock the boat." Mid level administrators understood that it wasn't a good idea to share unpleasant issues with other divisions of the company. The article points out that the current CEO of GM wasn't told about the problems until the scandal was well along. 

It's curious that some of the same analysis came out as early as 1958 in the book The Insolent Chariots. Insolent Chariots mentioned the same institutional rivalries between different GM divisions. Back then, the result was a car in which the trim peeled off the inside of the door after a year, and the radio died after 18 months, but you had to find other ways to die, other than ignition switch failure. 

The Governing.com article compares the system at GM with the more open system installed at Ford by its new CEO in 2006. In that system, high level administrators are required to share problems with other executives before they become multibillion dollar problems. Ford ignition switches won't kill you. 

There must be many more American institutions where the practice is to kill the messenger rather than to accept the message. There is an important question here: Does governmental and corporate secrecy persist because the advantages outweigh the disadvantages? Since corporate CEOs and their henchmen are not being carted off to federal prisons in droves, there must be a reason. 

My guess would be that secrecy and coverups can survive for a while, and this often means that they are only discovered after the people who benefited have taken off to other pastures. 

Maybe it goes deeper, and the vast majority of buried secrets will never be discovered. 

But I suspect that in companies and agencies with tangible products, whether they be Chevie Tahoes or kidney surgeries, the bad outcomes will eventually become public knowledge. That seems to be the case right now for GM and for the VA. And we should remember that they both are large and fairly powerful organizations, so when they strive to be secretive and then fail in a public way, it should be a message to ourselves and to all the other companies that feel the temptation to hide their mistakes. 

The deeper question is why corporate and governmental coverups are so easy to get away with. The obvious answer is that the people who engage in law breaking and coverups don't get punished. One straightforward answer, which has been increasingly popular since the massive bank failures, is that corporate officers who conspire to allow their companies to break the law should be subjected to criminal penalties. 

It's curious that a corporation can be held liable for something that is a crime, yet the criminal justice system doesn't follow up by prosecuting the executives who are responsible. It would probably be equally useful to allow injured consumers to sue corporate executives directly, along with the corporations themselves. If the Vice President in charge of ignition switches could be held personally liable for someone's death, I think we would see a rapid evolution in corporate culture. I suspect that this approach would be easier to execute than using criminal prosecution, although I support the idea of using the manslaughter indictment against corporate executives who knew of the ignition switch problem and kept it a secret from the drivers who suffered the ultimate penalty. 

Finally, I promised I would show you how easy it is to get your congressman's phone number, and how easy it is to make the call. Go to the government web site here and type in your zip code. Find your congressional representative and click on the name to get to a web site. Then, don't bother to try to find an email address. Find the telephone number of an office (local or D.C., it doesn't matter). That's all you need. Call that number and make your views clear. Congressional offices keep count of the numbers of calls on each issue.


(Bob Gelfand writes on culture and politics for City Watch. He can be reached at [email protected]





Vol 12 Issue 50

Pub: June 20, 2014