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Ethics expert: Transparency quells questions

Many of the questions tied to how public officials worked with the private Metro Sports Foundation in building Fargo's Urban Plains Center could have been avoided, local ethics experts said.

Many of the questions tied to how public officials worked with the private Metro Sports Foundation in building Fargo's Urban Plains Center could have been avoided, local ethics experts said.

Tim Peterson, assistant dean of the College of Business at North Dakota State University, said the key word for any business and government agency is transparency.

"Today, it's not only what we do, but how we do it that's important," said Peterson, who taught business ethics at Texas A&M University before joining NDSU.

With the proliferation of video, camera phones and other media, "nothing is private anymore," he said.

If businesspeople or government employees even give the appearance of trying to cover something up, questions will arise, Peterson said.

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"Eventually, someone is going to say this doesn't seem right. We raise questions whether or not this is in the public's best interest or not. Even if it's not (an ethical or legal lapse), the mere appearance raises a public issue," Peterson said.

Jim Legler, director of the Center for Ethical Leadership at Concordia College, said, "You really have to be careful that you don't lie to the public ... whatever the motive might be."

Legler points to the recent case of the Wall Street firm Lehman Brothers, which told the public its financial health was good, while scrambling behind the scenes to get financing to remain solvent.

Legler said intent must also be weighed in determining whether the actions of public officials with the MSF were ethical or not. That spawns a raft of questions, he said in an e-mail.

"Are these people representing the school district and the taxpayer or something else? Does one organization conflict with the other? Does the volunteer role conflict with the school position? Is this a method of deceiving the taxpayers or not? Perceived conflict of interest can be also serious and should be avoided," Legler wrote.

Without transparency in dealings, officials in business and government risk losing their credibility and their effectiveness, Peterson said.

"Everybody watches everything we do in the world and make judgments about our behavior," Peterson said.

"How are you going to represent yourself so the public sees you as being transparent, and authentic, and by those two things, ethical?" he asks. "You cannot be a leader if you're perceived as unethical."

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Readers can reach Forum reporter Helmut Schmidt at (701) 241-5583

Helmut Schmidt is a reporter for The Forum of Fargo-Moorhead's business news team. Readers can reach him by email at hschmidt@forumcomm.com, or by calling (701) 241-5583.
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