Recently a reader of this newspaper [the North County Times] sent me a detailed message that argued for a simple but important proposition: Apply the same conflict of interest laws and standards to elected officials that are repeatedly hammered into civil service employees.
One might think the same standard already applies to both groups. But judging by the ethics panel report that examined the sweetheart deals given to Senators Kent Conrad and Christopher Dodd, the “appearance of impropriety” civil service benchmark is apparently irrelevant when it comes to very tangible loans that go far beyond appearances.
According to the Senate ethics committee report these two Senators "were often offered quicker, more efficient loan processing and some discounts" by California’s Countrywide Financial. Yet those circumstances were not found to breach the Senate’s ethics rules.
Then there was the string of financial improprieties connected with Rep. Charles Rangel that finally became so long the powerful New York Congressman was forced to step down from chairmanship of the House Ways and Means Committee. Rangel tried to fob off violations on his staff, arguing that he couldn’t be held responsible for illegal benefits to himself if his staff didn’t let him know about them.
Try using that excuse on the IRS, and see how far it gets you.
My letter writer noted that “reaffirming traditional conflict of interest definitions…would do much to improve government at all levels.” While I certainly agree that application of these strict standards to elected officials would be beneficial, the use of government itself for the benefit of specific interest groups (like public employee unions) is now a much greater problem facing the state of California and its municipalities—a problem that isn’t addressed by focusing attention on conflict of interest standards as applied to individuals.
The graft of the aforementioned senators is chicken feed compared to the 500 billion dollars in unfunded liabilities within California’s public employee pension systems. These compensation structures for state employees who collectively possess huge political clout constitute a 24/7 conflict of interest problem.
This self-serving system, by the way, was made possible by former Governor Jerry Brown’s 1978 signature on the “Dill Act,” a law that allowed state employees to unionize.
The fact that Brown is again a contender for governor suggests that the Tea Party message against ever-expanding government hasn’t penetrated the psyches of most California voters—much less the media-shaped mind of politicians like New York City Mayor Bloomberg who reflexively link opposition to big government with homicidal terrorism.
In truth, the greatest conflict of interest of our time is the use of government for the enrichment of groups that are increasingly part of the government itself.