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Ethics and Ambition - The Consequences of an Ambitious Duke Prosecutor

How often have I said in presentations around the country, "Every choice has a consequence! It is an inescapable truth...just like gravity." Yet, it seems like daily we are bombarded with media rich coverage about bad choices and the consequences that follow. The Duke lacrosse fiasco and Mike Nifong's prosecution is but another example. The question now is not what happened - that has been well documented, but how could someone expect to make so many wrong and unethical decisions and expect to get by or go undetected?

Nifong resigned, has been disbarred, and now is facing criminal the possibility of criminal contempt of court. Attorneys for the Duke lacrosse players wrote that Nifong's misconduct "shocks the conscience and defies any notion of accident or negligence." The consequence of a conviction of criminal contempt of court could land Nifong in prison.

Let me first say, as an Ethics Keynote Speaker, I have no personal connection with this case or any of the parties therein. Therefore, the comments made here are not in judgement of the people or of their alleged crimes - that's for the judicial system to handle. Rather, there seems to be a common thread that runs through issues like this and having been there myself, I understand clearly how choices can be made that can have disastrous consequences. Perhaps if they are exposed - others may consider more carefully their choices before reaping the consequences that follow.

It has been said that Nifong's judgement might have been blurred by political ambition. I suppose it could be argued that Nifong's political career could be catapulted forward with a high profile conviction in this case. Suppose that the Duke lacrosse students had, in fact, raped an African American stripper - imagine the headlines following a conviction. Nifong would have brought to justice those wealthy Caucasian boys who, assuming they were above the law with their wealth and privilege, harmed in a violent way those who were underprivileged and disenfranchised. Headlines like that would get one votes. And votes gets one power in the political machine.

The problem is - it wasn't true. Certainly the Duke lacrosse students may be judged guilty of poor judgement. But, college students often do dumb things. Judgement aside, they did not break the law. And no matter what was said, in this case the truth was exposed. Choices and consequences.

There is a pattern to unethical behavior and Nifong seems to fit it perfectly.

NEED. Nifong seemed to have a need - political ambition. For the record let me state, I don't know for sure the need - what I do know is that one does not generally participate in unethical behavior unless they have a need first - otherwise, there would be no reason to make the choice.

OPPORTUNITY. The second component of the triangle is an opportunity to meet or advance the need. Before the Duke lacrosse case landed on Nifong's desk - I would almost bet that this well respected Durham, NC District Attorney had no intention of doing anything that would get him disbarred. In fact, likely he would have been a champion of ethics fighting those who exhibited unethical behavior. Yet, if the speculation is true - political ambition was a strong need - then the Duke case could be just the case that would propel this ambitious District Attorney to the next level. What can be more powerful in the political arena than fighting for the rights of the weak and downtrodden.

RATIONALIZATION. The third component that made this case such a "perfect storm" was Nifong's apparent ability to rationalize his behavior. The reported facts seem to support that there was no real opportunity here. Reality seemed to be that the "weak and downtrodden" stripper was seeking an opportunity to make some money off of a bad situation. Nifong didn't have a case and, from his comments at his ethics trial, he knew that. Yet, somehow his need and this apparent "golden opportunity" triggered an internal ability for Nifong to rationalize his behavior.

This third component sealed his unethical choice and set the wheels in motion for the consequences that followed. Had he stopped early on with the prosecution the consequences would have been less severe - in fact, his career likely would have been saved. But, like many who make unethical judgements - I know as I have been there - we often continue to make them rationalizing that eventually they will have the desired outcome or at worst they will go undetected. That is fantasy.

All choices have consequences - either positive or negative. That my friends is an inescapable truth. I am sympathetic to Mr. Nifong as I have experienced much of what he is going through. The pain is very real and the consequences he will face have just begun. The effects or consequences of our choices can be seared into our beings for the rest of our lives.

Yet, there can be recovery. If every choice you make has a consequence - either positive or negative - then we can choose to make choices that will yield positive results. As a Motivational Speaker, I often speak to groups about Choices: Negative Consequences - Positive Results. For information on presentations that can help your employees, association members or students understand the ramifications of the choices they make and focus on choices that will bring true success contact me at or visit

Chuck Gallagher is an international speaker and author who shares his life experience in a way that is meaningful for his audiences. For information on Chuck’s presentations or how to subscribe to his free ezine...visit