How to Deal with Conflicts of Interest: There's No Getting Away from All Conflicts of Interest. Here Are Eight Ideas to Help Lawmakers Juggle Their Personal and Public Interests

By Kerns, Peggy | State Legislatures, July-August 2004 | Go to article overview

How to Deal with Conflicts of Interest: There's No Getting Away from All Conflicts of Interest. Here Are Eight Ideas to Help Lawmakers Juggle Their Personal and Public Interests


Kerns, Peggy, State Legislatures


When you enter public service, your personal and professional lives come with you. Your background helps you get elected. It also presents you with the potential for conflicts of interest. You're a parent, a homeowner, member of a professional organization and a taxpayer. You deal with legislation in lots of areas, and sometimes it's difficult to tell where your private interests stop and the public's interest begins. Conflicts of interest are inherent to the job.

THEY'RE EVERYWHERE

A legislator-nurse chairs the human services committee. What should she do when a bill comes before the committee that would benefit her, as well as all nurses? A farmer serves on the committee considering a bill to create incentives for the crop that he grows. Legislators who are educators or spouses of educators, have to vote on a bill that raises teacher salaries.

The experts say you cannot avoid conflicts of interest as you carry out your duties as a public official. It's how you deal with them that counts.

"Conflicts of interest may occur when a legislator's personal interests come in conflict with the public interest. It does occur when the legislator picks the personal interest over the public interest," says Alan Rosenthal, professor of public policy, Rutgers University.

Conflicts of interest are not in themselves wrong or unusual, says Stuart Gilman, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Ethics Resource Center. "Although it might seem obvious, one has to have at least two interests to have a conflict of interest. What's important is how one acts on these conflicts. And the ability, to identify conflicts of interest does not necessarily ensure that one can deal with them effectively."

STEPS THAT MAY HELP

Here are some things to consider when faced with a conflict of interest decision:

1 Respect the legislative institution. You hold a position of public trust. With it comes the responsibility of strengthening the bond of trust between citizens and their representatives. No matter what decision you make, it should strengthen the legislative institution.

2 Follow the law. Alabama defines conflict of interest as "... a conflict on the part of a public official or public employee between his or her private interests and the official responsibilities inherent in an office of public trust." Your state's definition may not be as straightforward, but it's saying the same thing: Do not use public office for personal gain.

3 Seek counsel. If the intent of tire law is clear, it should be easy to follow, right? …

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