Andersen: Derek Johnson and degrees of criminality
What Derek Johnson perpetrated in Aspen made logical sense in a culture ruled by free-market capitalism: He enriched himself through widely accepted tools of commerce on the free market. He just didn’t happen to own the goods he was selling.
As devastating as a six-year prison sentence must be for the former Aspen city councilman and Aspen Skiing Co. executive, a “reasonable man” would say that Johnson is getting what he deserves.
Now consider if Johnson had been working for Johnson & Johnson, makers of wholesome goods for homes and families. J&J, like Derek Johnson, enriched itself through widely accepted tools of the free market.
The only problem is mesothelioma, a rare and incurable cancer that sufferers say was caused by their exposure to asbestos in J&J baby powder applied when they were diapered as infants, as far back as 1971.
It was reported that J&J disclosed that asbestos was found in a bottle of baby powder produced as recently as 2018. The company questioned the finding and announced that the asbestos was attributed to an air conditioner in the testing lab.
Asbestos poisoning went on for decades, and J&J finally admitted that it knowingly marketed tainted baby powder. “The jury held J&J liable for the plaintiffs’ cancers,” reported The New York Times, “and awarded them $37.2 million in compensation. Now their lawyers are seeking to persuade a second jury that J&J’s behavior was so reckless that punitive damages are warranted.”
Reckless, indeed. Remember that J&J’s abhorrent criminal conduct targeted babies. Babies!
If Johnson had played a role in manipulating this free market debauchery for J&J, he would be shielded by dozens of lawyers and protected by corporate clout. He might have received praise for protracting a lucrative market of victimized customers. “Well done, Johnson! We’re moving you upstairs.”
But Johnson was working his own scheme. So, he was beyond the protection of larger institutions that have the power to foist thievery on the public and blatantly violate moral, ethical and legal boundaries. Too big to fail becomes too big to do wrong.
When the global economy crashed in 2008, the perpetrators — the best and brightest — not only got bailed out, they earned huge bonuses — for bilking the public, defrauding securities, for combining reckless ambition with all-consuming greed. Some of them probably vacation in Aspen and maybe own second homes here.
If Johnson had been selling bogus financial instruments, all would have been forgiven. His defense would be that the financial system gave him enough unregulated latitude to enrich himself. If his actions crashed the economy and cost millions of homeowners their life savings, the ends justified the means.
Johnson could not fecklessly sell 13,000 pairs of stolen skis and inflate his personal wealth without knowing he was doing wrong. The same with executives at J&J who knew that asbestos is a carcinogen that could sicken babies. Same with the unscrupulous bankers who worked in concert within powerful, amoral companies to destroy what for many was the American Dream.
Why did these people act immorally and illegally while knowing full well what they were doing?
That question requires examination of our political, corporate and civil institutions. One answer is that the accumulation of riches by any means is culturally acceptable, materially rewarded and socially glorified. It is only by degrees that crime is judged and punished.
The Machiavellian ethic — money, fame, power — reaches to the highest tiers of our social strata and to the highest office in the land. Consider Trump University, which defrauded students and forced the president-elect to pay $25 million to settle lawsuits. Donald Trump more recently misused charitable funds by dipping into his foundation to underwrite campaign expenses and pay off personal debts.
“Behind every great fortune is a crime,” concluded Balzac. Goethe described man’s fall through Faust, a reprobate damned for selling his soul to the devil.
Some make a lasting pact with the devil until the pained truth emerges. Some live with their ill-gotten gains while conscience gnaws at their humanity. Some must pay the price.
For his crime, Johnson earned a full-service second home in Colorado — albeit not in Aspen.
Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at email@example.com.
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