Rafael Palmeiro and Bernie Ebbers have more in common than you think.
Both men made names for themselves in Mississippi: Palmeiro as a three-time All-American baseball player at Mississippi State University, and Ebbers as the founder and CEO of Clinton, Mississippi-based telecom outfit WorldCom. Both men have also had falls from grace; Palmeiro was suspended by Major League Baseball this week for a positive steroid test, and last month, Ebbers was sentenced to twenty-five years in prison for his role in WorldCom’s accounting fraud scandal.
Palmeiro and Ebbers have a third thing in common – both men are guilty of what I call boomerang quotes.
A boomerang quote is, simply put, a quote that returns at a later date to haunt you. We’re all guilty of making such statements at one point or another in our lives (“I will never fly that airline again!”), but few of us will do so in a public venue. For Palmeiro and Ebbers, their boomerang quotes happened in very public venues, and both men are being haunted by them.
In Palmeiro’s case, it was a March trip to Capitol Hill to testify in front of a congressional committee examining baseball’s drug testing and steroid policy that created the boomerang quote.
“I have never used steroids. Period. I don’t know how to say it any more clearly than that. Never,” Palmeiro said on March 17. “I am against the use of steroids. I don’t think athletes should use steroids and I don’t think our kids should use them.”
Less than five months later, after Major League Baseball announced Palmeiro’s suspension, the Baltimore Orioles slugger was faced with his past.
“I am here to make it very clear that I have never intentionally used steroids. Never. Ever. Period,” Palmeiro said on Monday. “When I found out that I failed a test under the new drug policy, I filed a grievance and challenged the suspension on the basis that I have never intentionally taken a banned substance.”
While we don’t know the exact details of what led to Palmeiro’s failed drug test, we do now that his use of the words “never intentionally” is quite possibly the most damaging portion of his story.
I was listening to the Baltimore Orioles game on the radio on Monday when the broadcasters announced the Palmeiro suspension news and read his statement over the air. In the press box with the broadcasters was Hal Bodley, the USA Today reporter who less than twenty minutes earlier had broken the Palmeiro suspension story via a story posted online.
Bodley, a fine reporter, was the first – but certainly not the last – pundit to suggest that Palmeiro’s congressional testimony deserved scrutiny. The news was barely a half-hour old, and we were already looking back at something said five months ago.
To find Ebbers’ boomerang quote, you have to go back to April 2002, to the day when he resigned from his position as WorldCom’s CEO. It would take another two months for WorldCom’s accounting scandal to come to light, but Ebbers was confident that the Securities and Exchange Commission (“SEC”) investigation into the company was a fruitless exercise. (Indeed, it wasn’t the SEC, but the company itself that eventually disclosed the accounting issues.)
“The second issue that we’ve had to deal with is the SEC investigation. It was a surprise to us. You know how companies work … SEC investigates accounting issues. Accounting issues are the responsibility of the chief financial officer. I’m not trying to shed responsibility; it all falls at my feet. And the chief financial officer then handles those types of accounting issues through the audit committee of the board. Scott Sullivan, our chief financial officer, is a man of impeccable integrity. I stand by him one thousand percent and I really believe when all is said and done, there will be a whole lot of non-issues with respect to the SEC investigation,” Ebbers told Bert Case, an anchor at WLBT-TV in Jackson, Mississippi.
Ebbers made matters worse moments later, suggesting that people go out and buy WorldCom stock, which had fallen in value by more than 90% in the previous two years.
“The fundamentals of the company are very strong. I can tell you if I had spare money I would be buying [the stock] today,” Ebbers said.
Two months later, WorldCom shares were worthless.
Ebbers’ interview with Parks became a central piece of evidence used against him in the media, and in legal circles. I noted his words more than once in my New York Post column, as did other journalists and bloggers. When contacted by a staffer for a Congressman ahead of Ebbers’ appearance in front of a committee investigating the affair, I even emailed him a link to the interview with the note, “Ask Bernie about this.” Later, a staffer who worked on the Ebbers case for the Department of Justice told me that he had a copy of the interview pinned to his bulletin board for more than two years. He used it to remind him of “why we had to nail him.”
The boomerang quotes that Palmeiro and Ebbers made were both televised, but it can be comments made in any venue that can boomerang you. Case in point: Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, the former CEO of insurance giant AIG.
On a February conference call with Wall Street analysts, Greenberg said, “Now, there’s a number of other things that obviously we had to confront in 2004. One was the regulatory issues. Certainly, with the SEC and the Justice Department, those are behind us. We have taken many steps internally to prevent and avoid anything like that in the future.”
A few minutes later, in answering a question about the “relatively hostile regulatory environment,” Greenberg used tennis to try to illustrate a point.
“When you begin to look at foot faults and make them into a murder charge then you have gone too far,” he said.
Greenberg’s comments were heard loud and clear by at least person – New York State Attorney General Eliot Spitzer, who read a transcript of the conference call online that same night. According to this week’s Fortune Magazine, Spitzer addressed Greenberg’s comments that night when speaking to staffers at a Goldman Sachs dinner, saying, “Hank Greenberg should be very, very careful talking about foot faults. Too many foot faults, and you can lose the match. But more importantly, these aren’t just foot faults.”
Spitzer’s office served AIG with subpoenas that day, and two months later, Greenberg was forced to resign from AIG amid a slew of investigations into the company’s reinsurance and accounting practices.
It’s easy to suggest that Palmeiro, Ebbers and Greenberg were less than truthful when making their original comments, but we can never be sure. All three men are accustomed to dealing with the media and speaking in public venues. All three men had their livelihoods and decades of hard work to protect. All three men are human, with families and friends, and people who trust and rely on them.
The important thing to remember is that the past is easily dredged up these days. When speaking publicly, you must think ahead, recognizing that you’re on the record and that your words are being archived somewhere. If you’re not careful, you’re going to throw a boomerang. And if that happens, you better hope you catch it.
This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.