Integrity Matters
December 28, 2005

Appearance matters in ethics of public officials

Question: (E-216)

Dear Jim:

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 to recuse:

  • 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.

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