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Mooneyham column: Identifying a conflict of interest

By Scott Mooneyham
RALEIGH ó Laws designed to prevent ethical lapses by elected and appointed officials require that distinctions be made between actions benefiting classes of individuals and those benefiting only individuals.
So, when a legislator who happens to be a marina owner pushes legislation regarding boat towing, is that a conflict of interest? That’s what happened when Sen. Clark Jenkins, an Edgecombe County Democrat, supported revised boat towing rules eventually vetoed by Gov. Mike Easley and then put into law when legislators overrode the governor’s veto.
Jenkins, though, represents a class of individuals ó marina owners. Passage of the bill benefited him no more or no less than any other marina owner in the state. He had no conflict of interest.
Still, full disclosure regarding a public official’s background and involvement in the policy issues that they decide is never bad for the public or the public official. It allows the public to understand that person’s perspective. Those perspectives can be a benefit in crafting policy. When state Rep. Danny McComas, a Wilmington Republican, talks about issues involving trucking, people listen. He knows the topic as a trucking company owner.
The distinctions don’t end with a person’s profession. After all, any boat owner could enjoy benefits from new boat towing rules. But again, the benefit is no greater or no less than for any other boat owner.
And what about legislation on gas taxes, car inspections or speed limits? Legislators, and most adults, are part of that class of people known as car owners. So, these classes can be large or small. They’re ultimately about how people are defined, professionally or personally.
No one, though, is defined based on owning a specific piece of property. And no legislator should vote on a piece of legislation that specifically benefits that property. The Charlotte Observer says that’s what David Hoyle, a state senator and developer from Gastonia, did when he voted on legislation funding a proposed toll road in Gaston County. Hoyle and two family members own 327 acres, intended for residential and commercial development, near a planned exit along the route. Hoyle is co-chair of the powerful Senate Finance Committee.
Affable and sharp, he’s been a driving force on tax policy and key advocate for government openness. In this instance, he made a mistake. He can claim to be a member of a class, developers. He could even claim a more specific class, Gaston County developer. But a developer who owns property along a specific road that is specifically mentioned in a piece of legislation is hardly a distinct class of individuals.
Any ethics law worth a hoot should make the distinction.
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Scott Mooneyham writes about state government for Capitol Press Association.

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