Being Ethical

Being Ethical is an advice column for legislators by legislators. Each month, a panel of current and former lawmakers weigh in on how to resolve ethical dilemmas.

May 2007

QUESTION

I work for a national law firm that wants to hire a sitting state legislator. He's a talented guy and would have a variety of duties in this position. One would be to lobby local government. Our firm has several important clients and we also lobby their interests at the statehouse, but this legislator would not be required to lobby his colleagues at the legislature.

State law allows him to accept this employment, but he would have to disclose any personal financial interest before voting on certain bills. Under state law, it's up to legislators to decide for themselves whether they have a conflict of interest and whether they should vote.

The CEO of our firm has asked several of us for our opinion. Some say that if it's not against the law, there is no problem. I'm uncomfortable about this, but it's difficult for me to articulate why. Am I trying to be more ethical than the situation requires? Any advice? done?  -RG

Submit your own ethical dilemma.

Dick FinanDick Finan
Former Ohio Senate
President

One piece of advice: Don’t ever worry about being too ethical. In this situation, I don't believe there is a problem with a legislator who is also working for a national law firm. That occurs all the time in my state of Ohio.

I also don't believe there is a problem with representatives of the national law firm lobbying both state and local government. That too occurs all the time; however, one needs to be careful that the legislator does not get involved with a bill his firm is lobbying. He should recuse himself from voting on any such bills.

The real ethical concern I see would be the state legislator lobbying a local government. Local officials might be intimidated by the legislator. They might worry that if they were to disagree with the legislator/lobbyist, he could retaliate in the state Capitol. Spending bills could be extremely dicey. Even with disclosure, I would not do it. Perception can become reality.

Submit an ethical dilemma.

 

Deborah RossRepresentative Deborah Ross
North Carolina

You are right in feeling uncomfortable about this proposed arrangement. When it comes to ethics, the law is a floor, not a ceiling. While transparency (disclosure) is crucial to ensure ethical action and public accountability, more might be required in this situation.

The fact that the sitting legislator would lobby gives me the greatest concern. Even the appearance of a conflict of interest could jeopardize the reputation of your law firm and of the sitting legislator. My advice is that it would serve both of your interests to avoid this situation.

Peggy KernsPeggy Kerns
Director of NCSL's Ethics Center

After reading the advice from Senator Finan and Representative Ross, RG should understand his own lack of enthusiasm. Both lawmakers come at this dilemma from different angles and give good advice.

Representative Ross talks about the appearance standard. Ethicists generally agree that the appearance of impropriety poses an ethical dilemma. Ethicist Dennis Thompson says that public officials who appear to do a wrong action do moral harm because they erode the public's confidence in government.

Senator Finan brings up another factor: the power of the legislator/lobbyist over local officials. It creates an uneven playing field. Who wants to go against someone who might have opportunities to help their city later?

Both Senator Finan and Representative Ross agree that simply disclosing the job is not a high enough ethical standard and would not hire the legislator for this position.