The Commonwealth Iconoclast

A site dedicated to covering issues relevant to the Commonwealth of Virginia, and nation at large, plus other interesting things too, as I see fit...

Friday, August 11, 2006

Conflict of Interest: A case study in standards of public conduct.





















Are appearances of conflict important?

Or, shall we adhere to the “handcuffs and prison bars” standard of public accountability?

Richmond’s Benjamin J. Lambert IV caught on the horns of a dilemma?



Readers of the Iconoclast are no doubt aware that the Iconoclast has addressed the issue of “conflict of interest” by public officials on a number of occasions during this past year.

So, it was with interest that we read the recent news report and accompanying editorial piece in The Richmond Times Dispatch concerning Benjamin J. Lambert IV, and his withdrawn candidacy for the 3rd District Richmond School Board seat.

Before we go any further, we wish to make it clear that Mr. Lambert has a good reputation and has done nothing to warrant criticism in this matter. He is in the news because he has been caught on the horns of a dilemma... a decidedly uncomfortable place to be!

The news article in The Richmond Times Dispatch explains that Mr. Lambert who had earlier announced his candidacy for the school board seat, and to contest incumbent School Board Member, Carol A. O. Wolf, was compelled to withdraw his candidacy when his employer Banc of America Investment Services, elected not to approve his request for company permission to run for elected office.

Mr. Lambert is a vice president and financial advisor to the Banc of America Investment Services.

In declining Mr. Lambert’s request for permission to run for the Richmond School Board, Banc of America Investment Services sources indicated that the company “takes a conservative view on conflicts of interest and so turned down Mr. Lambert’s request to seek public office.”


Mmmm… interesting phraseology… “takes a conservative view” on conflict of interest?" We will come back to this in a moment.

What exactly is "conflict of interest"?

In the same edition of The Richmond Times Dispatch, the Editor, weighed in on this matter in an editorial entitled “Side Out.”

In this piece, the Times Dispatch Editor laments that the withdrawal of Mr. Lambert from the contest will leave the 3rd District Richmond School Board seat uncontested giving incumbent Carol A. O. Wolf a free ride. It goes on to suggest that Mr. Lambert “would have brought a fresh voice to the discussion on the city’s schools…”

The Iconoclast does not disagree with the Times Dispatch’s concern that the 3rd District School Board seat will go uncontested. Yes there is a need for ”sober reflection and dispassionate scrutiny” as the Editor characterized the qualities that Mr. Lambert would bring to the table.

However, the Iconoclast takes a slightly different view of the situation… a dilemma if you will… one that pits the question of appearances of conflict of interest against the real need to have spirited debate and self reflection on the Richmond School Board.

And this issue goes beyond the Richmond School Board and even the City of Richmond.

Now let us go back to the interesting phraseology cited above. The Iconoclast is inclined to commend the Banc of America Investment Services for it is so called “conservative view on conflicts of interest.”

What the Banc of America Investment Services seems to be saying here is that they are not satisfied with meeting minimum standards of the law when it comes to their own employees becoming involved with public offices. The company is setting a higher and more ethically strict standard concerning conflict of interest than is required by law.

Good for them! A breath of fresh air all too rarely seen in modern business practices and today's politics!

Not only does the Banc of America Investment Services want to avoid actual legal conflicts of interest, it wants to avoid even the appearances of conflict of interest. The company apparently recognized that this situation could have become a credibility and trust issue in a scenario where Lambert would serve in a dual role as a broker-dealer and member of a school board trying raise money via bond issue.

By Virginia law namely Title 2.2, Chapter 31, the State and Local Government Conflict of Interest Act, Mr. Lambert could have no doubt walked a careful line to avoid actual conditions of legal conflict of interest. The Banc of America Investment Services was wise to not accept the minimum standard. They will be better served by adhering to the higher standard of public accountability.

For this good example of high standards in ethical conduct for its employees, a tip of the hat to the Banc of America Investment Services from the Iconoclast!

While the Richmond Times Dispatch is not flaunting the issue of conflict of interest, the Iconoclast awards Times Dispatch a questioning raise of the eyebrow for not even mentioning the issue of “conflict of interest” as the company’s concern in declining permission for Mr. Lambert’s candidacy.

It seems to us that the Times Dispatch may have overlooked the more important issue... namely integrity in public service.

Conflict of interest... this is an important issue. Editors of The Richmond Times Dispatch... wake up and pay attention!

There is no doubt that Mr. Lambert will have many opportunities to contribute to his community in the comming months and years. For the time being, it is best that he do so as a private citizen. We wish him well in whatever role he serves.

6 Comments:

  • At 8/11/2006 1:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Why do we have to get all bent out of shape over ethical questions? Isn't it good enough if we keep most of our politicians out of jail? What is the big deal?

     
  • At 8/12/2006 9:35 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    it's been well documented that for many public officials stayimg out of jail not being charged with a crime, is the standard for ethical behavior.

    Not all, but some.

     
  • At 8/12/2006 9:11 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    A prudent official would be well served to always keep in mind that the law establishs the minimum standards. The public expects that state and local officials will do better than the minimum.

     
  • At 8/17/2006 9:28 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Thanks for the discussion of conflict of interest. Some politicians like to keep this their "dirty little secret" and don't really like to talk about it too much. Why? Because they, the bearly legal politicians, are cashing in on the opportunity to make sweet-heart deals with friends and family.

     
  • At 8/19/2006 9:37 AM, Blogger Will Vaught said…

    It seems that for all thorny issues there will always be multiple perspectives, some more well thought out, others not so well thought out. So, we now read with interest "Is politics all local, or global?" by Michael Paul Williams, in the Richmond Times Dispatch.

    While the Iconoclast remains troubled with the widespread casual disregard of conflicts of interest in Virginia politics these days, Mr. Williams' perspective is not without merit. Perhaps he is, in fact, introducing another important but separate issue that should be discussed... the widespread apathy of individuals towards their community and the public goods... sometimes known as politics.

    Mr. Lambert is to be commended for wanting to get involved with the Richmond City Schools. He can still do so... as a citizen. He can indeed be a powerful influence as a private citizen if he chooses. But the Iconoclast can not believe that Mr. Lambert is the only citizen from that district who is qualified to serve well as a candidate choice.

    What is everyone elses' excuse for not running?

    Mr. Williams's piece can be seen in its entirty by through the following link (just copy and paste):

    http://www.timesdispatch.com/servlet/Satellite?pagename=Common%2FMGArticle%2FPrintVersion&c=MGArticle&cid=1149189966287&image=timesdispatch80x60.gif&oasDN=timesdispatch.com&oasPN=%21news

    Mr. Williams' piece brings up a valid issue. In the future, the Iconoclast will be exploring the issue of citizen apathy in more case studies. Better citizen involvement means better government. Conversely, citizen apathy breeds bad government... at all levels. It is as simple as that.

     
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