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Determining Conflicts Of Interest

Wednesday, Mar. 16, 2011

Conflicts of interest in government are often discussed from a strict legal perspective. Does voting on a particular item have a financial impact on the legislator? Are there real estate holdings that might influence a vote? Does a vendor or potential contractor employ a family member?

But there are also significant ethical issues to consider in determining whether or not a conflict of interest exists. And some believe that even the appearance of a conflict is sufficient grounds for recusing oneself from a vote.

A current case in Baltimore illustrates how many ways you can examine an issue and how reasonable people can disagree on the appropriate action. In this instance, the mayor of Baltimore has been voting on contracts involving Johns Hopkins Health Systems, although the company employs her husband. Since he began the new job in  December 2010, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has voted on 12 items involving Johns Hopkins entities. The decisions involve $900,000 in contracts and services.

The mayor says she has not voted on any deals directly involving the division where her husband works. “I abstain from any vote directly related to Hopkins Community Physicians, where Kent works.” The city’s ethics code specifies: “a public servant may not participate in and must disqualify himself or herself from any matter if it involves a business entity in which…a disqualifying relative is a partner, officer, director, trustee, employee, or agent.”

The city attorney is investigating the issue, first brought up by the Baltimore Sun newspaper. He says that while “it appears acceptable for Rawlings-Blake to participate in decisions involving the university, it is less clear from an ethical standpoint whether she should be voting on issues involving the medical system.”

Proactive legal and ethical advice could have saved the city, the mayor, her husband, and the university from making headlines that impact public confidence in government. The threshold for looking at these issues is, simply put: the law is the floor, not the ceiling.

Tags: Baltimore, conflicts of interests

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