“Get yourself a good lawyer,” was the advice I kept hearing. I had just been selected to run a large water agency in Florida, and although people seemed genuinely glad for me, they all commented how “political” the job was. No problem. On active duty with the Army Corps of Engineers I had held several high-vis, high pressure jobs that required finesse and a cool head, and I survived them. I was confident that I could handle a tough, demanding job, but I decided getting an advocate to help me negotiate my employment arrangements made a lot of sense.
At a complete loss where to start, I called Bob Kimmitt, who, I knew, would have a couple of classmates’ names to recommend. Bob suggested Ralph Artigliere – an old friend I was happy to call. Ralph had a partner, Jon Anderson (another 69er), who was well-versed in employment law. I didn’t know Jon, but having a classmate at my side was exactly the honest broker I needed.
Jon and I quickly developed a good friendship and effective working relationship. He asked tough questions, interviewed a number of key officials, and reviewed pertinent law. His bottom line to me was to turn down the offer. No real protections for me, no guarantees, and lots of risks. We talked about it at length, but I had the “fever”……I wanted the job and the risks. We shook hands, and Jon left town. I would never see Jon again; this outstanding man would perish in a plane crash in 2003.
Fast forward 18 months or so. By then, I had established myself as a solid leader of the water agency. I had handled staff shakeups, emergency operations during hurricanes and flooding, intense press coverage, a contentious Governing Board, and a strong-willed Chairman.
I frequently briefed the governor, as we were the lead agency with the Corps of Engineers on the massive Everglades Restoration Program.
Some of my friends told me I was on a fast-track to move to the “big time.” After all, the governor’s brother was the president! I thought I was riding pretty high.
About then I came to my “harder right” moment. From left field, I started getting pressure to fire a key deputy (for reasons that seemed pretty thin.) I resisted, but the pressure kept ratcheting higher. Governing Board members (my bosses) called me at home with advice. Most of it was along the lines: “go along to get along. Don’t ruin your own bright future to save a guy who’s already damaged goods.”
Problem was that this man was being railroaded for reasons that were completely fabricated; they just wanted him gone. He was my chief negotiator for huge land purchases for the state – a job handling millions of dollars, acres, and egos. And he was considered totally impartial, highly competent, and incorruptible. Just the kind of person I needed in that key position. I could only conclude that the “powers that be” wanted their own person in that role – someone who could be controlled.
Since I never became EPA Administrator, you probably guessed that I didn’t fire that individual. But I was no longer the fair-haired boy. Clearly, I couldn’t be trusted to be on “The Team.” Some key relationships were severed. Within the year, I submitted my resignation. A very tough chapter of my life had concluded. But by choosing the harder right over the easier wrong, I had earned a tremendous amount of support and respect. I received an unbelievable wave of public support and important validation from industry and government contacts. Ironically, it was a significant reputation-building experience. I became highly sought after by numerous organizations and business leaders, including my next employer. People closest to the action understood and appreciated the decisions I had made.
I am convinced that the emphasis West Point put on character, integrity, and doing the right thing carried me over the roughest times. I was definitely being pressured to take the “easier wrong,” but I knew I couldn’t live with that decision. I’m proud of the path I chose, and I hope it gave others some inspiration to choose the harder right.
Excerpts from the West Point Cadet Prayer
Strengthen and increase our admiration for honest dealing and clean thinking, and suffer not our hatred of hypocrisy and pretense ever to diminish. Encourage us in our endeavor to live above the common level of life. Make us to choose the harder right instead of the easier wrong, and never to be content with a half-truth when the whole can be won.
Endow us with courage that is born of loyalty to all that is noble and worthy, that scorns to compromise with vice and injustice and knows no fear when truth and right are in jeopardy.