FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Demise of Conflict of Interest

Is Donald Trump signaling the end of conflict of interest prohibitions for elected officials? According to a December 8 New York Times article, the President-elect “intends to keep a stake “ in his many businesses (both international and domestic) and to resist calls to divest.   In the same article, the Times quotes Mr. Trump as saying: “The law’s totally on my side, the president can’t have a conflict of interest.”

Not even the emoluments clause of the Constitution appears as a major deterrent to the incoming administration.   Article II, Section 9, Clause 8 states that no American officeholder shall “without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever from any King, Prince, or foreign State.”  Unless the Congress “consents,” that provision would bar a president from reaping a financial reward from any global business deals involving a foreign state.

An article in The Economist of December 4, 2016, notes that preventing such conflicts of interest was considered by the framers as “vital to the survival of the new state;” and that foreign gifts to American government representatives “were of particular concern.”

Unfortunately, there is a growing trend toward the acceptance of money in politics and the tolerance of conflicts of interest among elected officials.   As political candidates demand increasing contributions to finance their campaigns, political action committees (PACs), sanctioned by the Supreme Court in Citizens United, are happy to oblige.

Elected officials at both state and federal levels have learned to skirt existing ethics laws.  Following his acceptance of an expense-paid junket to Israel last year, the President of the Massachusetts Senate Stan Rosenberg opined to a Boston Globe interviewer that conflict of interest rules are “way overreaching.”

“Overreaching?”  Not overreaching enough to convince the State Ethics Commission to reprimand the nine senators who accepted international travel junkets from lobbyists of an organization that had just secured their votes on an important resolution promoted by those same lobbyists.  The Commission summarily dismissed two citizen complaints against the senators.

At the federal level, it is difficult to find a congressman or senator who has declined to accept a similar offer of expense-paid international travel by an organization advocating certain bills or resolutions in Congress.

In recent months, two former Virginia Governors have been cited for their acceptance of multifaceted gifts from lobbyists and businessmen seeking state contracts during their respective tenures. Neither of them faced legal penalties in the state for their obvious conflicts in accepting expensive gifts, travel junkets and cash, since Virginia had no ethics law in place.

In the federal bribery case against him, former Governor Bob McDonnell was shown to have accepted from a state business-seeker $70,000 in loans, contributions for his daughter’s wedding, a Rolex watch and private jet travel.  In return, McDonnell arranged meetings with relevant state officials for the businessman and hosted events for him at the Governor’s mansion.  Chief Justice Roberts, in his opinion last June overturning the bribery convictions, held that the access granted to the businessman did not amount to a quid pro quo.  He did make passing reference to “tawdry tales of Ferraris, Rolexes and ball gowns,” but no mention of conflict of interest.

Last summer when presidential candidate Hillary Clinton selected Senator Tim Kaine as her vice-presidential running mate, the New York Times reported that Kaine had accepted $201,600 in corporate gifts—many of them from businesses and lobbyists seeking favors from the state—during his eight years as Virginia’s lieutenant governor and then governor.  Yet there was nary a mention of those gifts during the campaign.

Given the seeming indifference to conflicts of interest and the reluctance of the authorities to enforce them, why should the subject  merit our attention?   Because conflict of interest (and even the appearance of conflict) is an insidious form of corruption.  It taints the gift recipient and erodes citizen trust in government.

Conflict of interest is also an important cog in the money-in-politics wheel of fortune.  For politicians who accept big money contributions from corporate and billionaire donors, it may seem inconsequential to accept money from a lobbyist who seeks a legislative favor.

Americans who want honest government should demand stronger ethics laws and more vigorous enforcement.

More articles by:

L. Michael Hager is cofounder and former Director General, International Development Law Organization, Rome.

December 12, 2018
Arshad Khan
War, Anniversaries and Lessons Never Learned
Paul Street
Blacking Out the Yellow Vests on Cable News: Corporate Media Doing its Job
Kenneth Surin
The Brexit Shambles Rambles On
David Schultz
Stacking the Deck Against Democracy in Wisconsin
Steve Early
The Housing Affordability Crisis and What Millennials Can do About It
George Ochenski
Collaboration Failure: Trump Trashes Sage Grouse Protections
Rob Seimetz
Bringing a Life Into a Dying World: A Letter From a Father to His Unborn Son
Michael Howard
PETA and the ‘S’-Word
John Kendall Hawkins
Good Panopt, Bad Panopt: Does It Make A Difference?
Kim C. Domenico
Redeeming Utopia: a Meditation On An Essay by Ursula LeGuin
Binoy Kampmark
Exhuming Franco: Spain’s Immemorial Divisions
ADRIAN KUZMINSKI
Democratizing Money
Laura Finley
Congress Must Reauthorize VAWA
December 11, 2018
Eric Draitser
AFRICOM: A Neocolonial Occupation Force?
Sheldon Richman
War Over Ukraine?
Louis Proyect
Why World War II, Not the New Deal, Ended the Great Depression
Howard Lisnoff
Police Violence and Mass Policing in the U.S.
Mark Ashwill
A “Patriotic” Education Study Abroad Program in Viet Nam: God Bless America, Right or Wrong!
Laura Flanders
HUD Official to Move into Public Housing?
Nino Pagliccia
Resistance is Not Terrorism
Matthew Johnson
See No Evil, See No Good: The Truth Is Not Black and White
Maria Paez Victor
How Reuters Slandered Venezuela’s Social Benefits Card
December 10, 2018
Jacques R. Pauwels
Foreign Interventions in Revolutionary Russia
Richard Klin
The Disasters of War
Katie Fite
Rebranding Bundy
Gary Olson
A Few Thoughts on Politics and Personal Identity
Patrick Cockburn
Brexit Britain’s Crisis of Self-Confidence Will Only End in Tears and Rising Nationalism
Andrew Moss
Undocumented Citizen
Dean Baker
Trump and China: Going With Patent Holders Against Workers
Lawrence Wittner
Reviving the Nuclear Disarmament Movement: a Practical Proposal
Dan Siegel
Thoughts on the 2018 Elections and Beyond
Thomas Knapp
Election 2020: I Can Smell the Dumpster Fires Already
Weekend Edition
December 07, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Steve Hendricks
What If We Just Buy Off Big Fossil Fuel? A Novel Plan to Mitigate the Climate Calamity
Jeffrey St. Clair
Cancer as Weapon: Poppy Bush’s Radioactive War on Iraq
Paul Street
The McCain and Bush Death Tours: Establishment Rituals in How to be a Proper Ruler
Jason Hirthler
Laws of the Jungle: The Free Market and the Continuity of Change
Ajamu Baraka
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 70: Time to De-Colonize Human Rights!
Andrew Levine
Thoughts on Strategy for a Left Opposition
Jennifer Matsui
Dead of Night Redux: A Zombie Rises, A Spook Falls
Rob Urie
Degrowth: Toward a Green Revolution
Binoy Kampmark
The Bomb that Did Not Detonate: Julian Assange, Manafort and The Guardian
Robert Hunziker
The Deathly Insect Dilemma
Robert Fisk
Spare Me the American Tears for the Murder of Jamal Khashoggi
Joseph Natoli
Tribal Justice
Ron Jacobs
Getting Pushed Off the Capitalist Cliff
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail