State Sen. Larry Haines has found himself on the hot seat because of an alleged conflict of interest. His case is instructive because it highlights the ethical complexities of part-time public service as well as the need for elected officials to avoid even the appearance of conflict.
The controversy involves a letter that the legislator wrote advocating the rezoning of 100 acres of land that his church would like to buy. Mr. Haines finds himself in a peculiar position on this rezoning question because he is simultaneously a state senator, a real estate agent and a member of the Church of the Open Door, which is seeking the land-use change. The melding of these three roles has created an unfortunate appearance of conflict.
Mr. Haines was careful not to abuse his position as a legislator. He wrote the letter on his real estate firm's letterhead, but Carroll County planning commissioners would quickly recognize the name as belonging to the Fifth District senator and not just an average citizen. We all know that a county governing board is likely to give more serious consideration to the views of Larry Haines, state senator, than to Larry Haines, average resident.
The classic conflict of interest case is when a public official uses his office for private gain. If this rezoning request is approved, Mr. Haines would not benefit personally. However, an institution to which he belongs stands to reap considerable benefit. Moreover, a number of people believe he has used his official position to advance the interests of his church.
In this case, Mr. Haines did not have any actual conflict of interest, but there certainly was a semblance of conflict.
This semblance -- where the outward appearance is different from the inner reality -- has a corrosive effect on public trust. In this cynical age, people are quick to read the worst into difficult ethical situations and expect the worst from public officials.
If public officials are to retain the public's confidence, they must follow the highest ethical standards. Perhaps another leader of the church should have made the appeal.
Elected officials would be wise to steer clear of situations that suggest an ethical conflict or preferential treatment. If they don't, their own reputations are likely to suffer.