In an important decision, the QAC Ethics Commission has found against a member of the volunteer Queen Anne’s County 4-H Board in a complaint alleging a conflict of interest. The conflict arose when a private company owned by a Board member entered into a services contract with the Board.
In the opinion, the Ethics Commission first established its jurisdiction over the Board and the right of the complainant to be heard.
In its findings of fact, the Commission noted that 4-H Board members had expressed some concern that the situation could be a conflict of interest, but that at no time - right up to and including the complaint hearing - had any member read or consulted the Ethics Law or sought an Advisory Opinion from the Commission. The 4-H Board testified that they believed that they had addressed any conflicts concern by having the company-owning Board member leave the room during the final discussion and vote. The Board awarded the contact to the Board member’s company which was the low bidder by a narrow margin.
As the Ethics Commission’s opinion points out, however, it was not just the process of awarding of the contract that presented a problem; the on-going relationship was in violation of the law. The Ethics Law provides “a clear-cut, black-letter ban on a business relationship between a private entity in which a Board member has a financial interest, on the one hand, and, on the other, the county board on which the member sits.” (p.6 of opinion) In short, the on-going situation of a Board member having a financial interest in an entity which is doing business with the Board he/she sits on presents a conflict of interest and is a violation of the law.
The Ethics Commission concludes with the following Final Consideration:
To the extent that counsel implied in his argument to the Commission that, somehow, volunteers on county boards and commissions should be given some slack in being charged with at least a basic understanding of the Ethics Law, and possibly some slack even in the application of that law to them, we firmly reject the notion. Volunteer service to local government is the backbone of good citizenship and is a hallmark upon which local government depends. Nonetheless, Section 8-4 � like similar provisions in a myriad of governmental codes at the local, state, and federal levels � reflects a legislative balance of this and other considerations against a bedrock of democratic government: Trust and confidence of the people in the integrity of their government officials. A government official’s status of volunteer does not reduce the right of the people to be assured that public actions of public officials are not tainted by considerations of private gain or insider status, and it is not unreasonable for the people to expect officials � volunteer and otherwise � to have at least a fundamental appreciation for constraints and expectations in this regard.
A cease and desist order for any action in furtherance of the contract in question was issued by the Ethics Commission.
Ethics Matters applauds the Ethic Commission’s carefully considered decision. We have only summarized the opinion here. It is available in full on this website under Opinions.