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Richard Cohen

Cupid Strikes, and Boeing Goes Into a Tailspin

By Richard Cohen
Thursday, March 10, 2005; Page A21

Hello, this is Richard Cohen from the flight deck. Look around you. If your plane was built by Boeing, get off immediately. It's possible the toilets won't flush and the seats won't recline and you could get your eardrums ruptured by the headphones. All this is possible because we now know that the plane was built by idiots. They can't tell the difference between a love affair and an illegal bribe.

The proof of that is the firing of Boeing's chief executive, Harry Stonecipher, for having an affair with a fellow employee. The woman did not report to Stonecipher, who neither promoted her nor changed her salary in any way. He worked at corporate headquarters in Chicago and she worked in Washington, D.C. Boeing examined the couple's expense accounts and e-mails and could find nothing illegal or improper or inhumane or anything other than inspiration in a Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles kind of way -- he's 68 and she's 48 -- and still Stonecipher was fired. The company said it had to protect its reputation. For what, I might ask. For stupidity, it seems.

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Boeing was already in a heap of trouble. In 2002 its finance chief was caught having illegal employment discussions with an important Pentagon official. The next year, the company disclosed it was under investigation for using supposedly secret documents from a competitor, Lockheed Martin, to win a contract. That cost it a cool billion in Air Force contracts. By the end of the year, the CEO, Phil Condit, was gone, and Stonecipher was summoned out of retirement and asked, among other things, to clean up the company's image. Then Cupid, probably using a Boeing heat-seeking missile, got him plumb in the heart.

In its statement, Boeing pointed out that Stonecipher's affair was "consensual," clearing him of everything from rape to sexual harassment. It also said that the affair "had no effect on the conduct of the company's business." Nonetheless, Stonecipher was fired on the front pages of The Post, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and every other newspaper of consequence -- and of course television networks of none. Boeing sacked and pillaged his reputation as thoroughly as it had his e-mail, where, it had been discovered by some snoop (no doubt already given a merit raise), that he had sent missives either of love or lust -- or something like that. I blush at the thought.

Sex has become the Red Menace of our day. Where once it was okay to peek into windows and listen through the walls in hopes of seeing or hearing something un-American, it is now permissible to do the same in the great cause of keeping sex out of the workplace. It turns out that Stonecipher himself is the perfect apparatchik. Having been accused, he promptly confessed -- and praised his accusers for holding him to his own standards. (The Party is always right.) "We set -- hell, I set -- a higher standard here," he told the Wall Street Journal. "I violated my own standards. I used poor judgment." Oh, shut up!

The public and sporting ignominy of Harry Stonecipher is an appalling saga. Without any shame whatsoever, Boeing admits rooting through the CEO's e-mail and expense accounts. I know that the e-mail belongs to the company, but why not also tap his phone and open his mail? In principle, it's no different. After all, urgent steps have to be taken. Someone somewhere may be having sex -- and discussing it on company time. Better -- much better -- to stick to computer solitaire.

Boeing acts as if it narrowly averted disaster. "Everyone should know that if we see any improper activities, we will take decisive action," said the company's chairman, Lew Platt. But nowhere does he say what those improper activities were, and he seems to forget that he had already found that the affair "had no effect" on Boeing's business. Platt did say that the "facts reflected poorly on Harry's judgment and would impair his ability to lead the company," but I suppose that's always the case in these matters. It's all about losing your head, isn't it?

Boeing is confused. It conflated the bribing of federal officials and the theft of secret documents with an extramarital affair. It is the company's judgment, not Stonecipher's, that must be questioned. We now know it will sacrifice talent and demolish the dignity of a loyal employee for a cartoon version of moral purity. That won't fly and, given its judgment, it's a wonder its planes do.

cohenr@washpost.com


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