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Presidential secretary Betty Currie arrives for her first grand jury appearance in January. (AP)


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Full Coverage, Including More Post Stories

Caught Between Loyalty and Principle (Washington Post, Oct. 4)


Secretaries Empathize
With Betty Currie

By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 10, 1998; Page A1

The turning point for Barbara Adelman came toward the end of her lengthy stint as a senior secretary to an executive at a Los Angeles entertainment company, when her boss's requests went from quirky to illegal.

"He was out of town and he asked me to forge his signature on a document, and then notarize the forgery," recalled Adelman, who was a notary public at the time. "I said,'I don't think so. I'd rather not land in jail.' I remember calling him one night and telling him I didn't like the way things were going. And he said, 'Listen, at least I'm not asking you to get me women and cocaine.' I started realizing that if I didn't hold my ground, he was going to keep pushing. I could see the end was near."

Like thousands of others who have catered to demanding executives, Adelman felt a nudge of recognition when she learned recently that presidential secretary Betty Currie facilitated clandestine meetings between President Clinton and Monica S. Lewinsky. While the scandal has highlighted issues about abuse of executive power, it has also raised questions about how far a secretary will – and should – go to protect the boss.

As executive secretaries everywhere know, it is all too easy to fall into the trap of performing undesirable tasks when the pay is good, other employment options are limited and, on some twisted level, you come to believe that if you don't do what you're asked, you're being insubordinate or disloyal.

Fawn Hall clearly felt that way when she altered and shredded crucial government documents for Oliver L. North, later explaining to the Iran-contra investigating committee that it was her policy "not to ask questions. ... I did what I was told." (She testified under a grant of immunity.) And Nixon presidential secretary Rose Mary Woods raised eyebrows when, during the Watergate investigation, she claimed to have accidentally erased a portion of a critical Oval Office tape.

"Frankly, these women are often forced to choose between keeping the job and doing the dirty work," says Ellen Bravo, co-director of 9to5, a nonprofit advocacy group for working women.

Indeed, while the jobs are often perceived by outsiders to be enormously powerful because of their proximity to the boss, the secretaries themselves say they often feel powerless because their job security depends on the whims of one person. Many were never trained in how to deal with a less-than-honest boss, yet they are liable for any illegal action they take – even if it is taken under orders.

Consequently, Currie's admission that she was "sneaking" Lewinsky into the Oval Office has been hotly discussed in offices around the nation.

"I have great empathy for her," said Pamela Peterson, an executive secretary from suburban Minneapolis, who suspected her former boss was engaging in fraud yet never pushed the issue until she found herself being questioned by the FBI. "It's a little thing one day and it's another little thing the next – instead of it being one big ugly incident that hits you in the face. That's how you get caught up in it."

"I identified with Betty Currie so much," said Adelman. "I'm sure she loves her job, and I'm sure there was never a moment when the president directly asked her to cover up the affair. You just don't see it coming. It's like a marriage that just slowly goes bad and you can't get out."

These professional secretaries, however, do make a distinction between being asked to do something questionable and being pushed into a blatantly unethical or illegal situation. A 1995 survey by the International Association of Administrative Professionals found that 88 percent of those polled had told a "little white lie" for a supervisor. Some do take a hard line, and say that they refuse to even mislead a caller to whom the boss does not wish to speak. But for the most part, it is when the lie becomes deeply dishonest – or illegal – that discomfort turns to angst.

Beth Colloty, who has been an executive assistant for 30 years, was once employed by a New York investor whom she suspected of being a serious cocaine addict. Since the man was basically "a good person" and a good boss, she said, she stayed as long as the drug use did not interfere with her job. That changed when a friend of the man's showed up one day and asked her to overnight a thick envelope to her boss, who was traveling abroad.

Pamela Peterson and boss
"It's a little thing one day and it's another little thing the next," says Pamela Peterson, an executive secretary from suburban Minneapolis.
(By Eric Miller for The Washington Post)
   
"It was clear to me that there was cocaine in this package and there was no way I was going to send it," she said, adding that she handed the package back to the friend with a firm refusal. "But what if I didn't suspect the cocaine use, and what if I sent it? That would have been my name on the package."

After six years on the job, Colloty knew at that moment that she could no longer work there. "I left soon after that because I realized that no matter how good a guy I thought he was, he was too far gone to realize how much jeopardy he was putting me in."

Sometimes the dishonesty is more subtle. Rosemary Deitzer had a stressful work experience when she took a job with an executive at a Midwest company. For starters, her boss informed her on her first day that he was from a Mafia family and that "this was important for me to know." The relationship went downhill from there and she quit after five months.

Determined to work only for honest people after that experience, she eventually went to work for a nun at a health care organization. Before long, the nun was instructing her on when and how to advertise or conceal her religious standing.

"If she wanted a good table at a restaurant, I had to use Mrs. when I called; when she wanted discount airline tickets, I had to say she was a nun traveling to help the poor," said Deitzer. "The constant deceit got to be too much. I found another job in nine months."

Nan DeMars, a corporate ethics consultant based in Minneapolis, specializes in helping subordinates straddle the line between self-protection and loyalty. She said that since Betty Currie's travails have received national attention in recent months, her business has been booming.

"You should be loyal to the boss, that's part of job. but it can't be the blind allegiance of yesterday," said DeMars, who recently published "You Want Me to Do WHAT?" a book that advises employees on how to set boundaries in a job.

"It's none of your business when the boss is having an affair. It becomes your business if he brings you into it by asking you to cover for him or lie to his wife," said DeMars. "I tell these women they have to take care of themselves first, their company second and their boss third. You have to look at the big picture and ask, 'Who am I? Can I live with myself?' "

One executive secretary for an eastern school district, who asked that her name and state not be revealed, said that she is routinely asked by a supervisor to take actions that violate district policy, including inflating the grades of college-bound students. As a single mother with two children, the 48-year-old woman is terrified of losing her job. She concluded that she has to obey her supervisor for now – but she documents every request in writing for her personal files in case she ever needs to defend herself.

"What am I supposed to do? I have to put food on the table," said the woman, who privately sought advice from a professional association. "I need the money, I need the benefits and so I am forced to do things I know are not correct. I have nowhere to go."

Pamela Peterson, the Minneapolis secretary who was visited by the FBI, said she did not feel financially trapped, but in hindsight she believes that she was lulled into staying despite her suspicions because it was her first senior secretarial job. "I had finally reached the pinnacle of my career – private office, big salary," she said.

So when her boss handed her $100 in cash and asked her to open a checking account, and when she suspected the personal financial statements he was providing to obtain loans were inaccurate, a few bells went off, but she never pressed it. "I never felt comfortable saying 'I think you're lying' and I should have," said Peterson. According to court records, her boss later pleaded guilty to bank fraud.

But like the others interviewed, Peterson said she would never allow it to happen again. "I have absolutely learned from that episode that it's very easy to be taken advantage of," said Peterson, who has been happily working for another executive at a financial services firm for seven years. "Now I make sure I develop a close enough relationship with my boss so I can say 'Let me understand exactly what it is you want me to do – or I can't do it.' "

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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