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When people enter public life—as an elected official or public employee—they bring their backgrounds and experiences with them. Sometimes these present ethical dilemmas in the form of conflicts of interest. Should a rancher-legislator serve on the agriculture committee and represent rural interests? Should a teacher-legislator serve on the education committee? If a physician-legislator votes in favor of her profession, is she representing her interests or the public's interest?
Ethicists say that conflicts of interest are not, within themselves, wrong or unusual. "Conflicts of interest may occur when a legislator's personal interests come in conflict with the public interest," says Alan Rosenthal, professor of public policy, Rutgers University. "It does occur when the legislator picks the personal interest over the public interest."
In the public sector, conflicts typically arise when a legislator or employee has the potential to receive a personal benefit based on his or her public position. States are aware that conflicts of interest must be addressed and most have done so either directly or indirectly. Many states define the term in their state constitutions or statutes.
Here are key issues covered by these documents:
- Contracting with government
- Criminal penalties for violation of ethics laws
- Definitions of conflict of interest
- Dual employment
- Dual office holding
- Representing clients before government
- Revolving door provisions (from lawmaker or staffer to lobbyist)
- Voting recusal