Credit card kickbacks threaten scientific integrity

Tommy the Terrorist mayday at super.zippo.com
Sat Jul 12 21:47:44 EST 1997


Recently, I received a piece of junk mail.  I had received similar junk
mail before, but threw it out, failing to recognize its significance. 
But this time, the offer was worded so explicitly that even a
skim-reading made it clear what they were suggesting.  As they say on the
first page:

"No One Knows You Get 20% Cash Back.  Not Your Guests.  Not Even Your
Waiter.  Simply pay the bill with your registered Citibank credit card. 
The next month, your 20% Cash Rebate Check will automatically be mailed
to you.  Even if you dine out this better way only once in a while, you
stand to collect plenty!"

... but from *who*?  And of course, there's the reason why
confidentiality is such an *important* selling point.  Because there are
situations where visiting seminar speakers are hosted by universities,
and in the process receive dinner at a nice restaurant.  The dinners are
attended by various people at the hosting institution, and end up being
charged to some departmental fund.  I suppose there are similar
situations in industry that account for more income from Citibank's point
of view, but nobody worries about corrupting corporate ethics, because
it's already a lost cause.

The point is that a person hosting a seminar speaker could take them out
to a restaurant of choice, rack up a large bill with pleasure, pay with
their credit card, get reimbursed from the university, from public funds,
and then get a 20% kickback for choosing the "right" restaurant.

This doesn't all come for free - the credit company charges $50 a year
for the scheme.  Presumably they make some money from 'suckers' who
forget they're paying the fee for something they don't use.  And there
may be some legitimate frequent restaurant visitors who simply manage to
make up the volume.  But only people paying someone else's money with a
fresh group of fellow diners each time can cheerfully ask for the bill,
again and again, EVERY time they visit the restaurant, and the same
restaurant every time, because it's not their money - until they get
their 20% back.

Admittedly, compared to a professor's salary it isn't a lot of money. 
But there's a principle involved, that gets bent a little further every
time.  First there were promotions where if you bought so much stuff from
a biotech company you might get a free T-shirt.  Then there were pipette
calibrators who'd offer you a free boom-box "for the lab" if you
calibrated so many.  Then there were companies that offered a chance to
win a vacation if you ordered their product - on your research grant
money.  And now, we have a situation here where, at least on a small
scale, you can collect a 20% cash KICKBACK for taking a seminar speaker
to a particular restaurant!  And this is something going on nation-wide!

It's impossible to completely avoid all "perks" and "payment in kind",
because of the nature of academic institutions.  We don't want a
situation where everyone has to pay their own dinner with the seminar
speaker, because then people in adverse financial circumstances are
denied the opportunity to socialize on an equal footing, with
corresponding implications for research collaborations, job contacts, and
so forth.  We can't feasibly eliminate all the miscellaneous situations
that come up, whether it's private use of Internet and other computer
resources provided by universities, or use of copiers, paper, and other
such petty resources for individual purposes of miscellaneous varieties. 
It's just too hard to police and decide such things.  But what we
certainly can recognize is that when people are pocketing cash for
purchase decisions, that something is seriously wrong, and that if it's
not stopped it's going to foster an atmosphere of corruption that will
screw up every financial decision process in the entire university.

As a first step, here is the "partial list" of "212 participating
restaurants in Illinois" that they sent to me.  If someone likes to take
a speaker to one of them every time (especially considering how obscure
most of these places are!), and always is the one to do the paperwork,
maybe you know what is going on.  It's a start...

Chicago:  "Moretti's Ristorante, Madison's, Ranalli's Downtown, Jameson's
Tavern & Grill, Buona Fortuna Cafe, Solo, The Garage, Yvette
Wintergarden, Polo Cafe and Catering, Mart Anthony Restaurant, Myth
Dinner Club, West Egg Cafe, Golden Ox Restaurant, Cafe Fresco, Rivers,
George Diamond Steakhouse"

Illinois:  "Alexander's, Bacino's on Belmont, Bennet-Curtis House,
Burgundy Inn, Cafe Bernard, Captain Guido's, Distant Mirror Cafe, Elio's
Ristorante, Gaddi's, George Diamond Steakhouse, Giappo's Pizza, Hidden
Cove, Japan 77, JP's Eating Place, Lorica Ristorante, Madison's, Mia
Cucina, Moretti's Ristorante, Myth Dinner Club, Omni Orrington Hotel,
Orbit Restaurant & Lounge, Patsby's, Petros Dianna's, Polo Cafe and
Catering, Ranalli's Downtown, Rivers, Russian Palace, Sage's Sages,
Sakura of Tokyo, Smuggler's Cove, Spasso, Sweet Basil's, Toulouse on the
Park, Villa Olivia Country Club, Walter's Restaurant, Widow Newton's
Tavern, Yvette Wintergarden, Zaven's, Alumni Club, Babaluci, Barcello's
Restaurant, Barnaby's, Bella Vista, Billy's Good Life Cafe, Black Forest
Chalet, Buona Fortuna Cafe, Cadillac Ranch, Cafe Margot, Cafe Vesuvio,
Cairo House, Cesar's Tacos, Chandler's Chophouse, Chaplin's on Church,
Chez Delphonse, Christopher's Bar & Grill, Ciao Bella Ristorante, Ciao
Tutti Ristorante, Clark Street Bistro, Corleone's Restaurant, Cucina
Bella, Del Debbio, Depot Bar & Grille, Dolly's Restaurant, Dumas
Walker's, El Niagara, El Torero, Espial, Frank's Place, Fuzzy Navel,
Geppetto's Ristorante, Gilmer Road House, Giordano's of LaGrange,
Giorgio's Place, Glen Ellyn Brewing Co., Golden Bowl, Golden Ox
Restaurant, Great China, Green Onion, Hong Kong Restaurant, Hot Tamalas,
House of Hunan, House of Szechuan, Indigo Oyster Bar, Italian Kitchen,
Italianni's, J. J. Finnegans, J.T.'s Roadhouse, Jameson's Tavern & Grill,
Jezebel, Jilly's Bistro, Jonathan's, Jury's, K's Restaurant, Ken's Guest
House, Kowloon Restaurant, L'Olive, La Canasta, La Palmita II, La Posada,
Liang's II, Lincoln Inn, The, Lindas Margaritas

* Now, mind you, this is the list from the junk mail - I'm not saying
someone's likely to have taken the speaker to the Glen Ellyn Brewing Co.
for dinner.  I *think*, though I'm not really sure, that this represents
a wide range of prices and markets, though obviously everything on the
list must be making at least 20% profit!  Nice business!


P.S.  If anyone can suggest a better newsgroup, I'm all ears.  There
seems to be a scarcity of forums on Usenet dealing with "scientific
ethics" of any variety.



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