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The American accountability crisis

Our leaders need to know their old pattern — epic screw-up, then teeny apology — isn’t enough.

Christoph Hitz

So, what do Kathleen Sebelius and Jericho Petilla have in common? Petilla is the energy secretary in the typhoon-ravaged Philippines who vowed to resign if almost all of the power to his island nation were not restored by Christmas Eve. Since Sebelius, in charge of health and human services, apparently believes the buck stops nowhere when it comes to the travails of HealthCare.gov, the two secretaries have virtually nothing in common.

Let's face it: America suffers from an accountability crisis. Leaders don't demand it of others and don't impose it on themselves. Unlike most of our politics, this is a bipartisan affair. Remember George Tenet, the former CIA head whose agency produced the faulty intelligence that paved the road to Iraq? For his fine work, the top spy, a Democrat, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by Republican George W. Bush.


On the financial front, how many masters of the universe who brought our economy to near-meltdown have been prosecuted and jailed? None and none. Take Richard Fuld (please!). He was the head of Lehman Brothers when it filed for bankruptcy in September 2008, triggering the whole financial mess. Though Fuld never paid a price, he did set a price: nearly $26 million, which he got when he sold his Manhattan penthouse less than a year after his company tanked. The Center for Public Integrity suggests Fuld won't go homeless, though, with an $8.1 million mansion in Greenwich, Connecticut, a $10.6 million beachfront home in Florida, and a ranch in Sun Valley, Idaho.

And let's not forget Lloyd Blankfein, CEO of Goldman Sachs, who told Congress in 2010 that his firm had no moral or legal obligation to tell its clients it was betting against what they were buying from Goldman Sachs. A year later, he was rewarded with an invitation to a state dinner for China's leader hosted by President Obama.


Though five years have passed, US Attorney General Eric Holder has said prosecutions of Wall Street's cowboys may still happen. Sure. You think Vladimir and Estragon still believe Godot will appear, too?

Of course, more than a decade ago, Cardinal Bernard Law raised lack of accountability to a spiritual level. Despite proof the former head of the Boston Archdiocese was drowning in reports of his minions' pedophilia, another attorney general — this one Tom Reilly of Massachusetts — said there was no law he could use against Law. Reilly said the scandal "borders on the unbelievable." What is more unbelievable is that the cardinal was never forced to trade his red robes for an orange jumpsuit. Instead, he traded his Lake Street residence in Brighton for the splendor of St. Mary Major Basilica in Rome, hardly a maximum-security facility.

So, was Gandhi (who would have made a great attorney general) off base when he said: "It is wrong and immoral to seek to escape the consequences of one's acts"? Of course not. But does it matter that so many practice responsibility avoidance?

Professor Nancy Koehn of Harvard Business School thinks it does. "History demonstrates that organizations headed by those who consistently embrace accountability create important precedent all around them," she says. "Leaders who drop the ball on this count send powerful and destructive signals across and down the chain."

While too many American leaders seemed to have skipped the historian's lecture, it's not just a Philippine administrator who gets the message. In 2009, Toyota president Akio Toyoda responded to a fatal crash and multimillion-car recall. Just three months on the job, the leader of the world's biggest automaker spoke of Toyota "grasping for salvation . . . we have given [customers] cause for grave concern. I can't begin to express my remorse." Seasoned observers said the great depth of Toyoda's bow reinforced the seriousness of his apology.


Back home, we don't even seem to get apologies right. They're either tweeted (hello, Kanye, Alec Baldwin), qualified ("If I offended anyone . . ."), or extracted with help from the Jaws of Life. Sebelius seemed contrite when she finally offered hers, but it came only after Baghdad Bob-like denials about the seriousness of the Obama-care rollout problems.

Her boss, the president, was late to the fair himself. When the animus moved from the website to his "if you like your health plan, you can keep it" assurance, it was only after trying to blame "bad apple" insurers for the cancellations that Barack Obama stuck his toe in the apology pool.

Enough complaining. To break the accountability gridlock here, someone has to follow Petilla's lead (he offered his resignation the day after Christmas, but the Philippine president rejected it). Though she broke no laws and the Affordable Care Act site is off the critical list, I'd nominate Sebelius. At a House committee hearing in late October, she said: "Hold me accountable for the debacle. I'm responsible." She is — and we should.


Jim Braude is host of Broadside: The News With Jim Braude on NECN and co-host of WGBH's Boston Public Radio on 89.7 FM. You can follow him on Twitter @jimbraude. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.