Outside Interests of Public Officials
PAGE E. BIGELOW
The officials and employees of large cities exercise a great deal of power over extraordinary amounts of money. New York City's direct expenditures, for example, are exceeded only by those of the federal government, New York State, and California. As a result, there is substantial opportunity for the unscrupulous to use official positions for personal financial gain or benefit. Consequently, there is clearly a need to minimize these opportunities and to deter such activities as much as practicable.
Until 1 January 1990, the New York City charter has a chapter entitled "Ethics," the contents of which are actually conflict of interest provisions. Strictly speaking, a "code of ethics" or "code of conduct" of the type found in local or state laws around the country is a collection of general rules of behavior, frequently without any specific penalties. It may deal with behavior, both public and private, and the appearance a public official or employee may present to the public. A code may include some basic conflict of interest principles but comes from an era when it was expected that such hortatory language was sufficient to induce proper behavior. In contrast, conflict of interest provisions in the modern sense are specific, well-defined, fairly technical anticorruption laws aimed at preventing the use of public office or employment for the financial benefit or gain of oneself or another. While the term ethics is often used as a kind of shorthand in describing such legislation, conflict of interest laws should not be confused with basically unenforceable codes of ethics.
Sound conflict of interest laws begin with the basic premise that, though other conflicts may exist, the primary ones that can be effectively regulated under law are economic. They arise out of circumstances in which public officials can benefit themselves at the public's expense. A number of essential elements are needed for sound conflict of interest legislation. First, it must define prohibited conduct clearly and provide procedures for recusal from a conflict of interest situation. Second, it must provide for an independent enforcement agency, empowered to administer an effective program of prevention, implementation, and enforcement.