I Have Done Nothing Illegal

You know the old joke: “Legal ethics is an oxymoron.”

Now, it may or may not be that lawyers are disproportionately ethically challenged. But the real oxymoron is not about lawyers—it’s about the legal-ization of ethics.

An act can be immoral or unethical without being illegal. And the absence of illegality does not make an act moral. This should not be a hard concept to grasp.

Yet, there is no shortage of businessmen and politicians who aggressively assert legal non-guilt as if it could mask the stench of grossly unethical behavior.

Googling “I have done nothing illegal,” and variations on the theme, provides such gems as these:

Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich—“I’m here to tell you right off the bat that I am not guilty of any criminal wrongdoing.”

New York’s former State Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno, responding to a damning indictment, sounds like the ex-boxer he is, saying
After being hounded for three years, I am being indicted on a prosecutor’s sleight of hand.” Bruno insults an entire profession by calling millions of dollars in sales-commissions-or-is-it-kickbacks “consulting fees.”

Remember Senator Alan Cranston of the Keating Five? Talking to congress, he said, “You know that I broke no law.

Enron’s Jeff Skilling testifies that he and Lay never broke the law.

Confirming their virtue, his buddy Ken Lay said: “We don’t break the law.

Former New Jersey Senator Robert Torricelli, explaining the scandal that led to his resignation: “…had not denied taking gifts from Mr. Chang, but said that he took no ‘illegal gifts’…

Back in 2006, San Jose’s mayor Ron Gonzales kept it simple. Indicted for fraud, bribery and conspiracy, he said “I broke no law.

Lousiana’s former Governor Edwin Edwards, being charged with $1M in racketeering and extortion said, ”I know I didn’t break any Federal laws.”

Really blurring the ethics/law boundaries, Pennsylvania State Senator Fumo’s 2007 response to a 139-count Federal indictment was, “I know in my heart that I have not done anything illegal.

Over on Long Island, the late Republican Joseph Margiotta was convicted of federal mail fraud and conspiracy charges in a municipal insurance kickback scheme, and served 14 months. Even then, he explained, “I didn’t break any law.

When Don Imus was brought back to the air from the racist dead, part of the rationale for it, as provided by the CEO of Citadel Broadcasting was, you guessed it, “he didn’t break the law.” So I guess all that other stuff—no biggie.

I can’t wait to hear from Madoff. His scam deftly sought out legal vacuums. So if and when he says, “I’ve broken no laws,” it’s important we remember he’s still a sociopathic ripoff artist.

When someone says, “I didn’t do anything illegal,” you can bet your bottom dollar they did two things wrong. One was the scam itself.

The other is worse. They have demeaned both the law and ethics.

The law cannot and should not substitute for ethics. For one thing, it puts an unsupportable load on the law—and lets unethical and immoral people off the hook.

Worst of all, it equates moral arguments to whining complaints made to third parties. That’s a recipe for abdicating personal responsibility. You can’t trust people who have no inner moral compass. A thief with a legal loophole is still a thief. A con artist with a good lawyer is no less a con artist.

That is the true meaning of “legal ethics is an oxymoron.”

When someone to whom we entrust our life savings or our political leadership acts badly, and then defends himself by saying,“I broke no law,” they should be shunned and shamed—outed and shouted—exposed to derision and disgust in all forms of public dialogue. Not to mention voted out or fired.

Bruno, Blago and Bernie ought to be ashamed of themselves. If they can’t even manage that, their status in court has no claim on our judgment.

2 replies
  1. Patrick Lamb
    Patrick Lamb says:

    Blago has taken his efforts to new heights.  Now, it’s more than just "I didn’t break any law."  Now, he says the legislature is doing all this because it wants to raise taxes.  And on the Today show this morning, he compared himself with Nelson Mandela, Dr. King and Mohandas Gandhi.  The man is delusional, an embarassment to Illinois.

    But to the point of your article, I am reminded of the old saying that if you ask the people in prison, there is not a guilty person among them.

  2. peter vajda
    peter vajda says:

    Hi, Charlie,




    Your list of “I have done nothing illegal” folks certainly runs the gamut of well-known political, entertainment and business operatives.


    I have two thoughts:


    1.       that the behavior in question is all about “story-telling”…concocting a “story” that one uses to absolve one’s self of blame or guilt so that one can create their own so-called truth and not own their own inappropriate behavior, and


    2.       that you could add one more name to your list, namely, that of “everyman”, i.e, “me”.


    I point to the second thought because from the boardroom on the 52nd floor to the mailroom in the basement and on every floor in between, there is a “me” – someone who has not taken the moral high ground, someone whose moral compass does not point north, someone who has driven off the high road – someone who has their own “story” to justify their unethical, illegal or immoral behavior.


    So, often it’s that when we point the accusatory finger at someone else, there are three fingers pointing back to “me”.


    I would personally add these folks to your list –  the “everyman”. If an individual steals 50 billion dollars and a number of non-notorious individuals find ways, for example, to steal small amounts which, over time, whose collective thefts add up to substantial amounts of money, they are as culpable. Their low road, or moral compass is no less “off” than the “named” personalities, IMHO. It’s not the “amount”. It’s the behavior.


    Folks who steal supplies from the office, pens and towels from hotels, cheat on their income taxes, call in sick when they aren’t, spend company time surfing the Internet, refuse to pay vendors with trumped-up “excuses”, bilk clients out of more fees than they deserve, “borrow” intellectual property, keep two sets of books at home, – all of these have their “stories” they use to rationalize and justify their behavior –  no more or no less egregious than the “big-shots” who appear on the front pages of the news. And those who say this is an “apples-oranges” comparison need to question their own thought-process, i.e, their “story” about why they need to think that way.


    The point here is that the “big fish” were at one time “small fish.” How did such small fish learn to behave to become big fish…not unlike the one single drink that leads down the road to alcoholism, or the one dish of cream that leads to obesity, the one innocent glance that leads to an affair, the one stolen pen that leads to a theft of billions of dollars. It began somewhere and that’s when the “story” began – the justifications, and rationalizations.


    What are their stories and how do they come to create them to justify their behavior?


    We all have our stories. And my suggestion is that while we point the accusatory finger at these others, at the same time we muster the courage and strength to explore this other, “me” at whom we are pointing the three fingers. What about me?


    Integrity is not a cloak we put on and take off when convenient. On – only when I accuse others; off – when I need to cut myself a little “integrity slack” in order to justify why I lie, cheat or steal. Integrity is like being pregnant. Either one is or one isn’t…there’s no such thing a being “a little bit pregnant”, or a bit less in integrity, “…that’s OK as I didn’t do it to the degree that so-and- so did.”


    In my travels I find many of us are quick to judge and criticize others who act without integrity. But truth be told, many of us are just as prone to separate from our core values when it’s convenient in some way. The operative question is: "Why?" What does acting out of integrity get me and what is the truth, the real, real truth about the “stories”, (the hypocrisy) I make up to rationalize or justify my unethical or immoral behavior? That is, when it comes to my “low-road” behavior, why am I not a “crook” (or other operative descriptor as it applies) but the Brunos, Blagos and Bernies are?


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