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Conflict Of Interest Versus First Amendment Rights: Where Do You Stand?

Thursday, Apr. 21, 2011

Few land-use decisions at the city council level make it up to the U.S. Supreme Court, but for Councilman Michael Carrigan, the trip to the high court takes place next week. It’s a case worth following.

When the Sparks, Nevada city council considered approval of a casino in 2006, Carrigan disclosed the personal friendship he had with Carlo Vasquez, the casino spokesperson and consultant. The councilman dutifully checked with the city attorney for an opinion on a potential conflict of interest and was given a “green light” to proceed in the discussion and vote.

The Nevada Ethics Commission, responding to complaints from casino opponents, ruled he should not have voted, given his relationship with Vasquez. They found that “a reasonable person in Councilman Carrigan’s position would not be able to remain objective,” and added that his friend had also served as his campaign manager.

Carrigan argued the law violated his First Amendment rights, and successfully sued to get the decision overturned by the Nevada Supreme Court. Now the Ethics Commission is headed to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the outcome of that decision is sure to reverberate across the country.

An editorial in the Las Vegas Sun urges the high court to overturn the Nevada court’s opinion, saying “the public’s interest in good government takes precedence over the elected officials’ rights.” The editors added, “If elected leaders don’t like that, they have a choice—they don’t have to run for office.”

Unfortunately it’s not that simple. The balance between transparency and the public’s interest and the rights of the individual elected official must be carefully considered.

Where do you stand on this issue? Post your comments here and I’ll follow up with a blog post after the Supreme Court rules.

Tags: conflicts of interests, ethics violations, Nevada, United States Supreme Court

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