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A DOSE OF ETHICS

Ethics evangelist Michael Josephson is trying to heal Arizona, a state made gimpy by corruption.

Last week he spoke to a large roomful of attorneys. This week he speaks to the Arizona State Legislature, then the Arizona Press Club. He has cornered all the usual suspects, in other words. Josephson, currently building a national reputation as an expert on ethics, was hired at a fee of $16,000 to give the survivors of the AzScam corruption scandal something to think about, as well as to provide image-boosting footage for local TV news. With this man's help, we all will see the light. Josephson saw the light himself in 1976, while a law professor. A son was born to him then, causing a conversion.

Confronted with an heir, and awash in the country's brief post-Watergate concern with decent behavior, Josephson decided to devote his life to ethics education. Eventually, he founded a nonprofit institute and named it after his parents.

Working out of the Joseph and Edna Josephson Institute of Ethics in Marina Del Rey, California, Michael Josephson has conducted more than 350 ethics seminars across the country. He speaks to military men, government officials, business leaders, judges, lawyers, politicians and media types. Time magazine, in a recent profile, said Josephson "encourages people to look beyond the letter of the law to such principles as honor, fairness, honesty and justice."

According to Andrea Margolis, a staff member at the institute, Josephson takes no salary from his ethics work. "He's independently wealthy," she says, wealth accumulated from the sale of a bar-review/legal-publishing company he once owned. Fees from seminars are fed back into the institute to fund research. Josephson polls participants at every stop--asking each if they'd consider cheating their insurance company, for example--and constantly compiles ethics data. One of his polls has already been sent to participants in the upcoming legislative teach-in.

It could be argued that some "good" will come from any circumstance that forces attorneys or politicians or reporters to sit in the same room with someone who is talking about ethics. If his work on the local lawyers last week is any indication, Josephson will be fun to watch, at the very least. While spouting quotes from the likes of Oscar Wilde, Ayn Rand and Immanuel Kant, Josephson worked the crowd like a cerebral standup. He shouted and cajoled. "We made the practice of law what it is!" he told them. "We can change it!" He used an overhead projector. He told good anecdotes at regular intervals. He finished on time. Much ethics was discussed. Sadly, the legislators aren't scheduled to get some of Josephson's best material. Part of his scheme was to engage the House and Senate in separate closed sessions, in addition to a public-invited free-for-all. But media managers objected to the closed session, claiming a) that it violated the state's open-meetings laws and b) looked bad. Josephson counterclaimed that the closed-session approach best suits his scared-straight, tough-love methods. With reporters and public present, image-conscious legislators might be skittish about asking stupid questions. True candor could only be achieved in secret. After several meetings and conference calls, Josephson and his contractors at the statehouse (Jack Jewett, Peter Rios and Jane Hull among them) decided against the closed sessions after all. (Josephson's agenda, now to be enacted totally in public, is expected to include the usual Socratic roasting of panels made up of legislators, lobbyists and journalists.) Meanwhile, Josephson's fee was cut by about $5,000, the press got its way, and the "appearance of impropriety" had been avoided, which is one of Josephson's big points, anyway. Cynics will say that the legislature is buying, in Josephson's flashy presentation, the mere appearance of propriety after the AzScam embarrassment.

But Josephson says that AzScam and its sickening details will not be the focus of his work here. "I tried to study the record and stuff," he said during a telephone interview last week. "I don't want to pretend to be an expert on this. This is not a program on AzScam. You don't need to have a seminar to say, `Don't take bribes.'

"We're going to explore much more subtle issues than those that came up in AzScam."

What will be explored, it is presumed, is philosophy--not exactly an everyday topic at our State Capitol. Taxpayers, ultimately the sponsors of Josephson's missionary visit, have the right to wonder: Is some effort going to be made to dumb this pitch down?

"We approach every audience as a very intelligent audience," said Josephson assistant Margolis. "We wouldn't walk into the Arizona State Capitol with the assumption that these are stupid people."--

"You don't need to have a seminar to say, `Don't take bribes.'

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Dave Walker