In the spectrum of avoiding conflicts of interest and safeguarding reputation and trust, a particularly bruising episode in the last several days involves a Sempra Energy lobbyist and a California Assemblyman. More than just a story of real or perceived bad behavior, it gets to the heart of what ethical standards are – beyond the words printed in a code of ethics or explained in ethics training.
Michael D. Duvall was a California Assemblyman and vice chair of the Committee on Public Utilities and Commerce and on the Rules Committee which oversees member ethics – until his abrupt resignation September 10, 2009. On September 9, an LA TV station had aired a videotape of a July California Assembly committee hearing where Duvall is heard in lowered tones regaling fellow Assemblyman Jeff Miller with his sexual exploits involving two women, at least one of whom is a lobbyist. Neither Duvall nor Miller, heard laughing at Duvall’s graphic details, knew the microphone was live.
When the videotape went public, members of the media tried to track down the women. As Duvall had described the lobbyist as wearing eye-patch underwear, liking spanking, and by her age and birth date, it was the last two clues apparently that enabled media to zero in on Heidi Barsuglia, a lawyer hired by Sempra Energy earlier in 2009 as a top lobbyist in Sacramento.
Suddenly, because of the sensationalized speculation, the story became about Sempra. Consumer watchdog groups can see it as further reason to distrust how Sempra and utilities do business. In the Public Utilities and Commerce Committee, Barsuglia had been successful in having defeated several renewable energy bills opposed by Sempra. Critics of Sempra’s rates or services were all too ready to weigh in online regarding the allegations. On the hypocrisy scale, it doesn’t help that Duvall, married with two sons, built a reputation on family values, or that Barsuglia, also married, is nearly 20 years younger. Media quoted state house sources sharing sightings of the couple after hours.
Sempra’s Joyce Rowland, senior vice president for human resources and chief ethics officer, was quick to go on YouTube with an 85 second message about Sempra’s demanding the highest ethical standards of employees and not tolerating the kind of behavior alleged. Rowland indicated that while the lobbyist denies the relationship, Sempra will conduct a fair and thorough investigation and take decisive actions warranted.
When the tape of Duvall’s comments at the hearing aired, he was stripped of his committees, including oversight of member ethics, and an ethics probe was announced. When he resigned, Duvall denied sexual misconduct, saying he was guilty only of inappropriate storytelling. Miller, his chuckling confidant, was removed from his seat on the ethics committee, begging the question: What qualifies someone in the California Assembly to be a credible watchdog of member ethics? How is an assemblyman’s ability to demonstrate ethical behavior, let alone assess it in others, identified or judged?
If Sempra’s lobbyist, who apparently had her requisite ethics training, is innocent of allegations, what missteps in judgment or behavior undermined her reputation and Sempra’s? If she lied to Sempra, as a first-year employee, was she really so without supervision that no one at Sempra saw how she was getting results and raised a red flag? What is the breakdown in how a highly visible employee would understand what the highest standards of ethical behavior look like? There are so many red flags in this tale that a bull would collapse from the exhaustion of the chase.
How Sempra and the California Assembly handle their respective investigations will provide insight into how ethical behavior is really valued in each organization. In the meantime, a colossal irony — Duvall had on his website that he was the 2000 recipient of the “Ethics in America Award” for demonstrating the highest standards of ethical integrity. The award says volumes about the vulnerability of organizations that recognize people for public relations reasons for what may only be a snapshot of a good accomplishment rather than a portrait of enduring integrity.
September 13, 2009