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Everyone’s Business:

With power comes temptation

December 02, 2009|By Robert Phipps

Life is tough. We’re all tested from time to time, especially those in positions of power. Politicians, police officers, lawyers, judges, heads of governmental departments, business leaders — even heads of churches — are regularly seen in news reports for breaches of ethics, or violations of law.

On Nov. 13, the Associated Press reported that a former Louisiana congressman was sentenced to 13 years in prison for taking bribes. The same day, the Los Angeles Times reported that four of five council members in San Jacinto had been indicted for “money laundering, fraud, bribery, perjury, conspiracy and filing false federal documents.”

These reports reminded me of some advice I received upon graduation from law school that I thought might be worth sharing with those in Burbank’s positions of power.

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I do not suggest that any of our city’s leaders, department heads or police officers are involved in anything improper. But I’ve lived long enough to know that temptations arise — money, promotions, power, sex; the list is long. It never hurts to have extra ammunition to ward off the advances of Murphy, the Devil, or whatever might try to lure us to self-destruction.

Our graduation commencement speaker was a judge. I don’t remember his name, but for more than 30 years I have remembered his words. He said, “Jealously guard your reputation. It’s like a pair of pants. If you get a hole in it, it can be patched. But the patch will always show.”

A law professor, whose name I’ve also forgotten, added his advice. He said that in the legal profession we would be handling other people’s money. He said there might be times when, due to personal financial difficulties or other reasons, we might think about doing something we knew was wrong.

He said if “morality” wasn’t strong enough to keep us from transgressing, then we should consider mathematics; in particular, the law of large numbers.

The law of large numbers is what keeps gambling casinos and insurance companies from going broke. It says that individually we can buck the odds in the short run, but even a small favor must prove victorious if played at length. We can spin the wheel, and beat a 5% advantage once in a while, but the longer we play, the more we are guaranteed that we will lose to the edge.

To illustrate, the professor used the crime of bank robbery, but any improper behavior would have served.

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