In It To Win: Jack & Role Morality
Abramoff’s version of role morality, which is our tendency to use different moral standards as we play different “roles” in society.
1. Can you explain role morality in your own words? How does it affect moral decision-making?
2. How does role morality apply to Jack Abramoff? What examples from his story can you cite to support your argument?
3. Can you think of an example from your own life where you or someone else fell victim to role morality?
4. How might you anticipate and/or mitigate the effects of role morality in your own life or decision-making?
On March 29, 2006, former lobbyist Jack Abramoff was sentenced to six years in federal prison after pleading guilty to mail fraud, tax evasion, and conspiracy to bribe public officials. Key to Abramoff’s conviction were his lobbying efforts that began in the 1990s on behalf of Native American tribes seeking to establish gambling on reservations.
In 1996, Abramoff began working for the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. With the help of Republican tax reform advocate Grover Norquist, and his political advocacy group Americans for Tax Reform, Abramoff defeated a Congressional bill that would have taxed Native American casinos. Texas Representative and House Majority Whip Tom DeLay also played a major role in the bill’s defeat. DeLay pushed the agenda of Abramoff’s lobbying clients in exchange for favors from Abramoff.
In 1999, Abramoff similarly lobbied to defeat a bill in the Alabama State Legislature that would have allowed casino-style games on dog racing tracks. This bill would have created competition for his clients’ casino businesses. Republican political activist Ralph Reed, and his political consulting firm Century Strategies, aided the effort by leading a grassroots campaign that rallied Alabama-based Christian organizations to oppose the bill.
As Abramoff’s successes grew, his clients, political contacts, and influence expanded. He hired aides and former staff of members of Congress. In 2001, Abramoff began working with Congressman DeLay’s former communications director, Michael Scanlon, who had formed his own public affairs consulting firm, Capitol Campaign Strategies. The Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana hired Abramoff and Capitol Campaign Strategies to help them renegotiate their gambling agreement with the State of Louisiana. Abramoff, however, did not disclose to the tribe that, in addition to his own consulting fees, he also received a portion of the fees paid to Scanlon’s firm.
In an effort to protect his Coushatta clients in Louisiana from competition by a new casino near Houston, Texas, Abramoff successfully lobbied for a state gambling ban in Texas between 2001 and 2002. Incidental to this ban was the closure of a casino in El Paso, Texas, owned by the Tigua Tribal Nation. The Tigua were another one of Abramoff’s casino clients.
Later in 2002, Abramoff made a pitch to the Tigua to work to oppose the ban for which he had previously lobbied successfully. With the Tigua’s money, Abramoff took Ohio Representative Bob Ney and his staff on a golfing trip to Scotland. Abramoff hoped to convince Ney and his colleagues to slip a provision into an election-reform bill that would grant the Tigua gaming rights. Abramoff’s efforts did not pay off, and the deal he sought fell through, but he did not inform the Tigua of this outcome. Rather, Abramoff continued to give the Tigua hope for the provision’s success, while also continuing to charge them for his and Scanlon’s services. And, in their email exchanges, Abramoff and Scanlon often mocked their tribal clients as “morons” and “monkeys.”
Throughout the course of their work with Native American tribes, Abramoff and Scanlon charged upwards of $66 million. The Coushatta paid over $30 million to protect their casino and to stop competing casinos in Texas. The Tigua paid $4.2 million to try to continue operating their casino in Texas. Abramoff has stated that he donated much of the money he made to charities, schools, and causes he believed in. But he also spent millions of dollars on activities or contributions in connection with politicians and campaigns he sought to influence. Furthermore, he evaded taxes by funneling money through nonprofit organizations with which he partnered.
After his conviction in 2006, Abramoff cooperated in the investigation of his relationships with Congress members, including aides, business associates, government officials, and lawmakers. Representatives DeLay and Ney both stepped down from their positions in Congress. DeLay, who had risen to the rank of House Majority Leader, was charged with money laundering and conspiracy of funneling corporate contributions to state candidates. Ney plead guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud and making false statements. In exchange for gifts, lavish trips, and political donations from Abramoff, DeLay and Ney had used their positions in Congress to grant favors to Abramoff’s clients and lobbying team. Abramoff served three and a half years of a six-year prison term. He was released on December 3, 2010.
Since his release, Abramoff has spoken out against corruption in politics. He has stated that he believed himself to be a “moral lobbyist” and has apologized for his actions. In a 2011 interview, he said, “What’s legal in this system is the problem,” and in his memoir, he wrote, “Unfortunately, I was a miniature version of that system.” But not everyone perceived his redemption as a genuine effort. Tigua tribal leaders said his apologies were too little, too late. Rick Hill, former chairman of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin, stated, “You look at Jack—though he took money from my elders and our kids, and now he comes here, and he gets to prop himself up, and it’s an acceptable part of [Washington] D.C. culture. He wouldn’t stand a minute on the reservation.”
Others point to the American political system, and see Abramoff as a symptom of broader corruption. Investigative journalist Susan Schmidt stated, “Abramoff couldn’t have flourished if this system, itself, was not corrupt, where the need for money—the members of Congress and their need for money—is so voracious and so huge that they don’t have their guard up.” California Representative Dana Rohrabacher said, “What Jack had been doing was what had been done before. People should pay more attention to the fact that we have got some enormous special interests in this country who are having incredible influences on policy.”
In his memoir, Abramoff reflected on personal and professional reform: “Regardless of my rationalizations, I was the one who didn’t disclose to my clients that there was a conflict of interest… I wasn’t the devil that the media were so quick to create, but neither was I the saint I always hoped to become. …I decided that, in order to move myself close to the angels, I would take what happened in my life, try to learn from it, and use it to educate others.”
1. Abramoff had an established set of morals in his personal life, and was deeply religious. He believed he was a ‘moral lobbyist’ who fought hard on behalf of his clients, and he donated much of his proceeds to worthy causes. Do you think the blame of his lobbying tactics primarily lies with Abramoff individually, or with the system within which he operated? Explain.
2. To what degree do you think individuals have a responsibility to act ethically within a corrupt system? How would an individual act ethically in this context?
3. Lobbying is a high-pressure, high-stakes business. Although lobbyists typically try to fly below the radar-screen, sometimes their business is high-profile as well. How might these situational factors affect lobbyists’ ability to act ethically?
4. Why do you think Abramoff and his associates would mock clients who were paying them millions of dollars? How does one rationalize or explain such behavior?
5. Since his release from prison, Abramoff has advocated for political reform, but many do not see his efforts as genuine. Do you agree with the view that Abramoff is a morally bankrupt felon who has no business advocating reform? Or do you agree with the view that Abramoff is a fallible human in a unique position to help us learn from his moral mistakes and reform a broken system? Explain.
6. Many politicians who received contributions from Abramoff or his clients donated portions of the funds they received to charity. Only a small fraction of politicians donated the money to Native American tribes. Do you think politicians who received these funds had a moral obligation to donate their money to Native American tribes? Why or why not? Do you have a different opinion of those who did donate to Native American tribes versus those who didn’t? Explain.
7. If you were hired to lobby on behalf of both the Coushatta’s casino in Louisiana and the Tigua’s casino in Texas, how would you negotiate the potential conflict of interest? Explain.
9. What legal reforms would you recommend that would make lobbyists more likely to act ethically? Why would you recommend these reforms, and how might you implement them?
Investigating Abramoff – Special Report
Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth about Washington Corruption from America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist
How a Lobbyist Stacked the Deck
A Jackpot From Indian Gaming Tribes
Jack Abramoff Confronted by Native American Tribes
For Ex-Lobbyist Abramoff, a Multimedia Effort at Redemption
Abramoff and 4 Others Sued by Tribe Over Casino Closing
Abramoff Effect: The Smell of Casino Money
The Fast Rise and Steep Fall of Jack Abramoff
Trial Money Linked to GOP Fundraising
‘Operation Open Doors’
A Lobbyist in Full
Lobbyists, Clients Undeterred by Scandal
Lawrence Lessig interviews Jack Abramoff
Casino Jack and the United States of Money
Heist: Superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, His Republican Allies, and the Buying of Washington
This video introduces the concept of role morality in the context of the story of former lobbyist and convicted felon Jack Abramoff. During the Bush Administration, Abramoff was the most influential lobbyist in Washington, D.C. He was also at the center of one of the most significant political scandals since Watergate.
Role morality is the tendency we have to use different moral standards for the different “roles” we play at work, at home, and in society. For example, a person might take an ethically questionable action in their role as loyal employee to advance their company’s profit goals that they would never take at home to put money in their own pocket. For more details and examples of this concept, watch Role Morality. To learn about related behavioral ethics concepts that may influence one’s role in group or work settings, watch Conflict of Interest, Conformity Bias, Framing, and Obedience to Authority.
The kinds of decision-making errors that are the subject of Jack & Role Morality and the other five shorts in this video case are the focus of a field of study known as behavioral ethics, which draws upon psychology, cognitive science, evolutionary biology, and related disciplines to determine how and why people make the ethical and unethical decisions that they do.
This video draws from footage shot at The University of Texas at Austin when Abramoff visited campus to talk about his life and corrupt lobbying in Washington, D.C. It is part of a video case that includes a 25-minute documentary, In It to Win: The Jack Abramoff Story, six short videos that focus on specific behavioral ethics biases illustrated by Abramoff’s story, and a written case study. The documentary exposes personal and systemic ethical concerns in government and illustrates how well intentioned people can make serious ethical errors—and even commit crimes.
To learn more about Abramoff and the scandal that ended his lobbying career, read the case study on this page. For a case study on role morality, read “Freedom vs. Duty in Clinical Social Work,” which raises questions about social workers’ role when their personal values come in conflict with the clients they are meant to serve. For a case study on how role morality affects a doctor who finds conflict patient care and upholding institutional recommendations, read “Healthcare Obligations: Personal vs. Institutional.”
Terms related to this short video and defined in our ethics glossary include: behavioral ethics, conformity bias, conflict of interest, framing, morals, rationalizations, role morality, and self-serving bias.
Books about the lobbying scandal include Jack Abramoff’s own account, “Capitol Punishment: The Hard Truth About Washington Corruption from America’s Most Notorious Lobbyist” (WND Books, 2011) and an exposé from journalist Peter H. Stone, “Heist: Superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, His Republican Allies, and the Buying of Washington” (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2006).
Movies about the scandal include a documentary, Casino Jack and the United States of Money (Dir. Alex Gibney, 2010), and a dramatization starring Kevin Spacey, Casino Jack (Dir. George Hickenlooper, 2010).
For more resources on teaching behavioral ethics, an article written by Ethics Unwrapped authors Minette Drumwright, Robert Prentice, and Cara Biasucci introduces key concepts in behavioral ethics and approaches to effective ethics instruction—including sample classroom assignments. The article, published in the Decision Sciences Journal of Innovative Education, may be downloaded here: “Behavioral Ethics and Teaching Ethical Decision Making.”
A detailed article by Robert Prentice with extensive resources for teaching behavioral ethics, published in Journal of Legal Studies Education, may be downloaded here: “Teaching Behavioral Ethics.”
Another article by Robert Prentice discussing how behavioral ethics can improve the ethicality of human decision-making, published in the Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy, may be downloaded here: “Behavioral Ethics: Can It Help Lawyers (And Others) Be their Best Selves?”
A dated but still serviceable introductory article about teaching behavioral ethics can be accessed through Google Scholar by searching: Prentice, Robert A. 2004. “Teaching Ethics, Heuristics, and Biases.” Journal of Business Ethics Education 1 (1): 57-74.
Transcript of Narration
Written and Narrated by
Robert Prentice, J.D.
Department of Business, Government and Society
McCombs School of Business
The University of Texas at Austin
“Sometimes organizational and psychological pressures cause even good people to act unethically. In a lawsuit over a car wreck, an insurance company representing the defendant demanded the right to have its doctor examine the plaintiff. When he did, the doctor found that the plaintiff had a life-threatening brain aneurysm. Because it would have disadvantaged the insurance company’s defense, the doctor did not tell the plaintiff, who did not find out for two more years. Why would a doctor keep this vital information from an injured man? Obviously, the doctor viewed his job as protecting the insurance company’s financial interests, Hippocratic Oath be damned. This is an example of something ethicists call role morality.
Role morality has been defined as feeling that you have permission to harm others in ways that would be wrong if it weren’t for the role that you are playing. Role morality often involves people acting in ways that they would view as clearly unethical if they were acting on their own behalf, but because they are acting on behalf of their employer or a client, they view their actions as permissible. In a detailed study of a corporation, sociologist Robert Jackall found that many employees segregated their personal beliefs from the ethics of their workplace. He quoted an officer as saying: “What is right in the corporation is not what is right in a man’s home or in his church. What is right in the corporation is what the guy above you wants from you. That’s what morality is in the corporation.” When people check their personal moral code at the door, they can suddenly become capable of doing horrendous things. After World War II, Albert Speer, Hitler’s Minister of Armaments and War Production, said that he viewed his role as an “administrator.” As a mere administrator, he convinced himself that matters relating to human beings, including, of course, the Holocaust, were not his concern. This man checked his humanity at the door.
A study by professors at Brigham Young University found that family businesses are more likely to act in a socially responsible way than bigger companies. The family name is on the door and officers want to act in ways that reflect well upon their family. However, people working in bigger corporations find it easier to separate their personal feelings of how business should be done from their role inside the organization. We cannot leave behind our personal beliefs as to right and wrong when we walk through our office doors.”