John Wayne once said, “If everything isn’t black and white, I say, ‘Why the hell not?’”
If only it were that easy.
One of the biggest lessons to come from the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal wasn’t the legality of what happened, but that a sitting president could be so lacking in judgment as to allow it to happen in the first place. Even supporters were disappointed that he all but gave his political enemies the firepower they needed to derail whatever agenda he was hoping to advance. And so it is with all ethical violations; while not always illegal, the resulting fallout is often far worse.
Consider more recent headlines; DEA agents accepting X-rated “gifts” from the very drug cartels they’re tasked with taking down. Or Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey pleading not guilty to corruption charges for allegedly taking $1 million in gifts and campaign contributions from a wealthy Florida optometrist in exchange for political favors. Prosecutors allege he gave Menendez vacations, airline travel and tens of thousands of dollars in contributions to a legal defense fund. In return, the optometrist sought Menendez’s support on the visa applications of several of his girlfriends, according to NBC News.
While not always this extreme, ethical dilemmas are all around, and advisors are far from exempt. That includes gifts from product providers and third-party vendors. In any conversation on the topic, people will argue there are always gray areas when it comes to managing conflicts of interest and what should or should not be disclosed.
Sure, there are degrees of consideration when you accept something from a prospective partner company. Have you ever hesitated to pick up that cool, gravity-defying pen at a mutual fund provider’s booth at a conference? One plastic, “Made in China” promotional item does not a corrupt advisor make. However, you’re more likely to find yourself listening to the pitch, and a conference tchotchke is only one end of the spectrum.
The other may be tickets to a sporting event. Or those two-day conferences that are part product education, part fly-fishing extravaganza. You converse with the company representative and connect on a more personal level as you float down the river. No strings attached, right? Wrong, even if it’s simply the tinge of obligation, or guilt, that accompanies your trip.