Genentech, the biotechnology behemoth, has been caught ghostwriting and mass marketing its ideas on health care reform and putting them into the mouths of a few dozen congressmen, many of whom entered the statements into the Congressional Record as their own.
The repetitiveness of the statements triggered a New York Times reporter’s investigation which found Genentech behind the voice. The reporter also found a link between congressmen making statements Genentech sent and those receiving campaign contributions from Genentech and its parent Roche; a connection Genentech denies.
When an 11-year old is caught doing something wrong, the lament is “but everyone does it;” a lobbyist affiliated with Genentech had the same response: “This happens all the time. There was nothing nefarious about it.” Some congressional staffers and lobbyists weighing in on this agreed: no big deal.
Intellectualizing here is a slippery slope: you can be pragmatic and keep trust, but in this case trust was broken. Lobbyists are great resources; advancing their companies’ agendas, they seek the sweet spot to anticipate or accommodate what an elected official needs as well as their company. But the system breaks down when the public doesn’t know whose unattributed voice comes out of the leaders’ mouths we elect. It breaks down in an orchestrated effort to enlist as many statements as humanly possible from legislators using Genentech’s words as their own. It breaks down without transparency.
This isn’t a case where the orchestration impacted a vote. But Genentech’s example is illustrative of a larger issue: a potential for an Orwellian spin on groupthink, how influence can manipulate and why the bar needs to be raised. A company’s actions may stop far short of showing “undue influence,” which is illegal. However, that doesn’t mean they aren’t corrupting the channels of communication.
The story has another cautionary aspect. When U.S. Representative Bill Pascrell Jr. from New Jersey was asked by the New York Times why his statement was nearly identical to so many of his colleagues, he said he’d gotten it from his staff but he didn’t know where they’d gotten the information. “I regret the information was the same,” he said. Any elected official or CEO who doesn’t know where his or her information comes from is inviting manipulation or turning a blind eye to plagiarism. Both explanations undermine the potential for ethical leadership, and both squander trust and credibility.
One would think it is an embarrassing episode for the congressmen involved, but I don’t presume to know anymore what is capable of embarrassing a congressman. And Genentech management, are they embarrassed? Roche acquired the company earlier this year, replacing highly regarded, long-time CEO Arthur Levinson – under whose leadership Genentech regularly won top spots on the most admired, best companies to work for, and other lists – with a Roche executive. Would this have happened, one wonders, under Levinson’s tenure as CEO?
Gael O’Brien, November 17, 2009