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Another Moral Mess-Up


Visiting a lion's lair does not necessarily allow one to share in the same culinary diet as those who make the jungle their home.

If you think Ol' Wild Bill Clinton has been having problems keeping things 'zipped up,' you should hear about some of the moral and ethical entanglements that people I know in the television business have run into over the years.

The other day, I was mentioning a few to a closet-comedian friend of mine whom I ran into on a plane trip to Florida. He's actually general counsel for the studio division of the Rerunarama Corp. and was on his way to preside over a company panel discussion about illegal and unethical business practices abroad.

I had been looking forward to a few days of poker and gin rummy with my aging Aunt Vera, who could leave me a small fortune if I play my cards right. But my friend dangled the possibility of a very lucrative consulting gig -- if I helped him out by filling in for one of the speakers he'd organized who couldn't make it. Seems the poor guy was spending a few days in some Turkish jail for reasons my buddy didn't care to go into.

Before I knew it, he was whisking me away in a rental car to a country club in Naples, Fla. I'm not quite sure why they picked this particular venue, but it occurred to me that the head guys at Rerunarama must be checking out retirement locations. After all, Naples is a great place if you want to competitively price shop for dialysis treatment or catheter bags, but it's nowhere to insist a group of young frothing-dog sales executives encamp to learn about the do's and don'ts of international business.

It's the first time I actually found golf-course greenskeepers trained in CPR. They even carried glycerin injections with them due to routine emergencies on the course.

I started out very stern-faced and asked the emcee to expand my bio a bit with the words 'former U.S. Attorney General -- Fraud Division.'

When I walked to the podium, sullen and clad in black, I knew I had their attention. 'I was brought here today to teach each of you a very important lesson: Bribery is not just unethical, it's illegal for U.S. citizens,' I told them. 'And to prove my point, I've brought along a polygraph system for each of you to experience -- firsthand.'

I could tell that the fabric of their pants was sticking to the vinyl chairs. I mean to tell you, did I get respect.

'See this,' I growled, holding up a jacketless cover of an old Stephen King novel that was too far away for them to read. 'This is a copy of the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, as amended. There's no industry sector discrimination here. Everyone who carries a U.S. passport and gets in trouble is subject to the same hose job.'

There's nothing better than using life-size stories to punch home a point. So I slapped 'em with a few heavily embroidered yarns. 'Once upon a time,' I began, 'there was a short, salacious salesman who wanted nothing more than a fat bonus to prove his manhood. All he needed was to clear a children's programming strip in a few countries south of the border. Sure, he'd done the right things -- dinners, 'E' tickets at Disney World, gifts for the spouse -- but pure charm and hospitality weren't doing the trick.

'Enter one of his competitors with a suitcase full of chain-saw-wielding animated creatures. My friend wasn't exactly a merchant of good taste, but this guy made him look like a Bambi peddler. As if that weren't enough, the enemy cartoon-flogger had the ticket to every man's fantasy -- a fully-paid two-year lease on a Ninja sports car. Talk about competition.

'What to do? Well, the demeaned salesman's solution was to slide a few zillion pesos back to his client. He then declared the amount as a 'non-reimbursable business expense' on his tax filing.

'Guess what?' I said. 'He got audited.

'Once the United States Internal Revenue Service picked over his bones and made his sins of admission known to his employer, federal prison became a sanctuary in comparison to the ridicule he endured from his family and peers. Upon his release, he became virtually unemployable and spent the remainder of his days on Earth as a paid test subject at the Yale University Prostate Cancer Research Institute.'

It gave me great pride to know that my words were puncturing the cerebral cortexes of my audience. 'You, too, could become the victims of circumstance,' I said, deciding that it was time for an anecdote with a bit more bite.

'Always bear one thing in mind,' I continued. 'Traveling into a serpent's cave or visiting a lion's lair does not necessarily allow one to share in the same culinary diet as those who make the jungle their home.'

I told them the well-publicized story of the American film merchant who made a good living selling packages of independently produced programs to state broadcasters and video retailers. He kept an offshore account for paying 'commissions', but that didn't matter much when the Asian masters of his destiny began to up the ante. Their appetite for excess far outpaced his, and inevitably over a relatively short period of time he became a debtor. The story that appeared in most newspapers indicated that full reparation to his creditors was only made once he disappeared. But local media types have long surmised that some of his body parts now belong to no less than four lucky individuals.

My friend was glowering at me and had the look of someone in need of an air sickness bag as he kicked off the question and answer session.

The only issue that seemed to capture the attention of virtually the entire gaggle of low-flying sales geese was how to best write-off 'gifts' and other favors presented to clients who downright demanded them.

One fuzz-headed squawker complained that while the corporation refused to reimburse small gifts, like bottles of XO, they also did not give sales support by hosting Hawaiian luaus or male-bonding golf outings, while their competitors were literally financing child brides for their elite clientele.

Recognizing that I'm nothing more than a rabid dog who has on many occasions bitten the hand that feeds him, I decided to close my presentation with one turbocharged corporate zinger.

'What's wrong with the use of intermediaries or consultants to deliver gifts of passion, pleasure or protocol?' I said. By this time my host, corporate counsel to the clan, was shaking and red-faced. He ushered me out, saying that he really couldn't keep me from Aunt Vera any longer.

The truth of the matter is, America wants the world to behave like civilized schoolchildren. But just because people attend class doesn't mean they want to learn from the official textbook.

Jett Lagg is a figment of the fertile imagination of an international television executive. His anecdotes and opinions in no way reflect those of Multichannel News International.