Absurdity on Conflicts of Interest

In towns large and small, there may sometimes arise a conflict of interest between an official’s private interests and his public authority. The idea of conflicts of interest is not new, but it is so poorly understood that one would think it was as new as a kitten and as rare as a unicorn.  A simple definition is enough for today:

A conflict of interest (COI) is a situation in which a person or organization is involved in multiple interests, financial or otherwise, and serving one interest could involve working against another. Typically, this relates to situations in which the personal interest of an individual or organization might adversely affect a duty owed to make decisions for the benefit of a third party.

Good policy requires that (1) one acknowledge that conflicts of interest are possible, (2) that they can be measured, that (3) an unremedied appearance of a conflict can be as serious to public trust as an actual one, and that (4) a sound remedy for actual conflicts is recusal from some or all decisionmaking or divestiture of the interest creating a conflict.

In no case, however, is a legitimate remedy one in which a party merely denies a conflict exists by speaking as though it does not exist.

And yet, and yet, in Janesville, Wisconsin that’s what a member of that city’s council recommends:

Janesville City Council members have mixed views on whether a developer should have been more forthcoming about his involvement with the city when he advocated for public financing to support housing development.


In June, Dahlstrom of Iowa-based Echo Development Group was one of two developers who presented at a housing forum co-sponsored by the city and Forward Janesville. The event explored ways to solve Janesville’s chronic housing shortage.


[Councilmember] Doug Marklein thought it was better to not know. That awareness would have blinded the audience into thinking Dahlstrom was only there to push for public money.

“That would’ve tainted his talk in the forum,” he said. “It was my take on it that he was telling us straight out how it was in the world.”

Via Officials: Housing developer who advocated for TIF did not have conflict of interest.

Under this line of reasoning, if someone speaks convincingly, of how wonderful a project might be, he’s not obligated to reveal a financial incentive for pushing the project.  Indeed, if he tells about his financial interest, then others might (reasonably) think he’s materially biased.  Imagine that.

America slips when she accepts thinking like that of this Janesville councilman.  Indeed, it’s so wrong that one wonders: is he dense enough to believe what he’s saying, or is he hoping that everyone else is dense enough to believe what he’s saying?

So a doctor wouldn’t have to tell you that he’s on a pharmaceutical company’s payroll before prescribing a medication, and a lawyer wouldn’t have to tell you he’s on retainer with a corporation before advising about a lawsuit against that very company…

(Whitewater, by the way, sometimes sees a version of this thinking, in which the same person pretends that because he has multiple declared roles, he has no conflicts at all. One hears that someone is wearing a politician’s hat, but later wears a publisher’s hat, so he cannot have a conflict between politics and news.  Again, one hears that someone is wearing a community development hat, but later a business lobby hat, so he cannot have a conflict between community needs and business needs.  In all these cases, the hats these men variously wear sit on the very same heads.)

A well-ordered community would require those who sit on development and economic boards & committees to submit financial disclosure statements. 

Local led the way to national: such degradation of principles and standards is that which paved the way to America’s present national condition, in which low men hold, and misuse, the highest offices in the land.

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