December 28, 2005
Appearance matters in ethics of public
What should a public official do when faced with conflict-of-interest
issues, specifically when decisions require voting that
might benefit friends or business associates?
Elected officials should withdraw, or recuse themselves,
and avoid conflicts of interest.
They ask that others invest in them with time, support,
energy, dollars and votes. We expect them to operate
with integrity. Like "public servants," who
are appointed rather than elected, they all want and
need our trust and confidence to retain their credibility.
Our public officials are expected, and rightly so, to
look out for our interests and not be self-serving marauders
who feather their own nests, winking at rules instead
of following the law. Fortunately, a majority of those
who serve the public do just that - consistently work
for the improvement of society, locally and at the state
and national level.
With reference to the integrity issue of public servants
knowing the law of when and how to recuse themselves,
five points will clarify key aspects of the decision
- The law is clear about what is legal and
appropriate regarding who should recuse themselves
and how their potential conflicts ought to be communicated.
Attorneys whose expertise lies in this field ought
to be consulted. Those who face these conflicts would
be well advised to learn and follow the counsel of
those who know the law.
- Clearly, when to "recuse" is a
legal question. Long-term thinkers, in both the public
and the private sectors, follow the law.
- The dictionary is specific about the meaning
of recuse: "challenge a judge, prosecutor or juror
as unqualified to perform legal duties because of a possible
conflict of interest or lack of impartiality."
- The appearance of conflict matters, and
attention to it is part of integrity-centered leadership.
An elected official granting contracts to those with
whom he or she might have a vested interest would raise
questions, even if that official's votes weren't affected
by those relationships.
- A retired judge mentioned to me that there
are two aspects to judgments rendered by judges: One
is to be sure to make the right decision, and second
is to be certain the right decision also appears to have
been the right decision.
- Public servants are responsible for making
appropriate decisions, including when and if to recuse
themselves. That decision should be based upon the same
two-dimensional criteria described by the retired judge
- not only simply doing the right thing but doing it
in open and proactive way that stays above reproach.