Ethics: Conflict of Interest
Jump to 50 State Chart: Definitions of "Conflict of Interest"
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. States have also passed laws in specific areas where conflicts may arise: gifts, holding two elected offices, dual employment, representing a client before a state or local agency and government, and doing business with the state. Other categories include honorariums, nepotism in hiring, banning certain professions from serving in the legislature, and a cooling off period before a legislator or employee may become a lobbyist.
States have implemented regulations for when legislators must recuse themselves from voting. These regulations may differ from chamber to chamber. Many legislative chambers, also, have specific procedures in place for the process of how legislators recuse themselves. Again these procedures may differ between chambers. The Center has created two charts: To Vote or Not to Vote and 50-State Chart of Recusal Provisions.