When who you know shouldn't count Anne Arundel County: Politicians can't let personal ties influence government business.

January 04, 1996

EVERYONE AGREES (or should) that conflicts of interest are unacceptable in politics. Too often, however, we assume automatically that a conflict of interest signals corruption -- the deliberate use of a public office for personal benefit. Dealing with politicians who overtly misuse their position is easy; we throw the bums out. Situations in which elected leaders stumble into a conflict, as Annapolis Alderman M. Theresa DeGraff did over the Christmas holiday, are stickier.

Ms. DeGraff's husband is a manager at Browning-Ferris Industries Inc., a private trash hauler. Eyebrows raise, sometimes unfairly, every time this alderman looks at garbage. In this case, the eyebrows went up when, after Mayor Alfred Hopkins inexplicably gave city trash collectors the day off on Dec. 22, Ms. DeGraff called Public Works Director John Patmore saying the garbage in Annapolis was piling sky-high. Mr. Patmore promptly asked to speak to her husband, whom he knows; soon, without getting estimates from other companies, the city hired BFI workers at triple time.

Ms. DeGraff certainly can't be blamed for trying to do something about a trash problem (though some residents say the situation wasn't nearly as bad as she indicated.) And though there's no way to prove it, nothing in her history makes it reasonable to believe she set out to secure a contract for BFI.

Still, BFI clearly benefited from its connection with Ms. DeGraff, for no more sinister reason than that it was more convenient for Mr. Patmore to make arrangements with her husband than to contact other haulers.

As it happens, other companies say they wouldn't have wanted this last-minute holiday job, and because people are hard to reach at Christmas it's easy to understand why Mr. Patmore seized the easiest solution. Nonetheless, other haulers should have been offered the chance to bid. Had they been, the question of a conflict of interest regarding Ms. DeGraff would not exist.

In politics as elsewhere, there's a tendency to hire someone you know. Even well-meaning elected leaders and bureaucrats must be careful to avoid letting personal ties give some businesses and individuals an unfair advantage over others. Whenever they don't, cynicism about politicians grows.

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