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Courtesy of the History Center
Hugh Sloan, who resigned rather than participate in the Watergate cover-up that toppled President Richard Nixon, speaks at the History Center on June 4.
Journal entry

Ethics lessons from one who was there

About 40 years ago, Hugh Sloan was working as the treasurer of a political campaign fund when he was told to disburse $83,000 in cash to G. Gordon Liddy.

He asked why, but his boss dodged the question.

“I don’t want to know, and you don’t want to know either” was all Sloan was told.

Sloan, now chairman of the board of directors for Michigan-based Spartan Motors Inc., was in Fort Wayne for an event sponsored by Leadership Fort Wayne’s Northeast Indiana Nonprofit Alliance.

I was among the people who packed the room at the History Center on June 4 to hear Sloan speak.

The topic of his presentation was ethics, which he was addressing through the prism of his experience working in a position that put him close to the White House and arguably the most powerful man in the world, the president.

But in the four decades since Watergate, ethics have become a resonating issue in politics, business and journalism. Ethics scandals have led to trials, convictions, embarrassment and humiliation.

The advice from Sloan that struck a chord with me: “You really do have the right, and sometimes the obligation, to ask why. And when you don’t get an answer, that’s the red flag.”

In 1972, Sloan was the treasurer of the Committee to Re-elect the President – Richard M. Nixon. Just days after he gave the cash to Liddy, news broke that Liddy and four accomplices had been arrested in connection with the burglary of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate office building in Washington, D.C. Sloan was one of the few Watergate figures who refused to lie and who emerged from the scandal with his honor intact.

He is also one of the few who refused to cash in on his connection to that era of history.

“It was (a) conscience decision,” he said. Watergate destroyed families. People went to jail.

“I have no interest in making money off of others’ tragedies,” he said.

Sloan joked with his audience that the only compensation he accepted for his appearance at the History Center was the bottle of water given to him by Becky Hill, the executive director of the sponsoring alliance and a longtime friend of Sloan’s.

Soon after the arrests, which occurred 40 years ago today, it came out that the Watergate burglars were holding $100 bills in sequential order, “which was how I (had) paid Liddy,” Sloan said.

Because he knew he would be called to testify, he sought advice from his bosses. When he made it clear he had no intention of perjuring himself, he was told, “You may have to.”

“John Mitchell (director of the campaign) just told me, ‘When the going gets tough, the tough get going.’ Which at the time I didn’t think was particularly helpful advice,” Sloan said. “But I took his advice. I resigned.”

Sloan said he had long been puzzled by those who chose to lie. He speculated that some were young and did it to protect their bosses. But he decided, “I wasn’t going to be a victim, I wasn’t going to be a scapegoat.”

His loyalty was questioned.

“But I came to the conclusion: I didn’t leave the team, the team left me,” he said. “Loyalty and respect have to be earned. If anyone asks you to sacrifice your integrity, they don’t deserve your loyalty or respect.”

An audience member asked Sloan whether Watergate and the experience of dealing with unethical people had jaded him or had changed the way he dealt with people throughout his business career.

“The experience led me to mentor young people,” he said. “When I see them trying to cut corners, I spend a little extra time with them behind the woodshed and I try to point them in the right direction.”

Stacey Stumpf is an editorial writer for The Journal Gazette.

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