Evaluating conflicts of interest Baltimore County: Some conflicts, including Disney's, are not debilitating to the public.

July 25, 1996

IT GOES WITHOUT saying that those in public life should avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest, and that the public must be aware of any conflict. At the same time, the public needs to discern between conflicts that smack of poor judgment or the desire to feather one's own nest and those that are coincidences, with no debilitating effects. The Baltimore County school board's approval of two relatively minor contracts with Whiting-Turner Contracting Co. while company vice president and shareholder Calvin Disney was board president falls in the latter category.

There is nothing to indicate that Mr. Disney, who resigned from the board last month, used his position to channel school business to Whiting-Turner. In the 10 years he sat on the panel, the giant contracting company has done practically no business with the schools. The two projects with which it is now involved amount to $802,700 -- peanuts to a firm with $730 million in annual revenues. Of course, the size of the contracts would be beside the point if Mr. Disney used his influence to help Whiting-Turner get them. But facilities officials say he did not discuss the projects with them. He did not vote on the deals; the board itself has yet to vote on the $800,000 contract.

Some ethicists suggest that, to avoid any question of impropriety, governments should not do business with firms connected to officials, period. The issue, however, is not a business's connection with an official, but whether the official exploits that relationship for personal gain. It is the job of local ethics commissions to determine whether this has occurred.

We will do ourselves a disservice if we pillory officials simply for being affiliated with a firm with which the government does business. We need people with expertise in finance, construction and other business matters on school boards and other panels. We also need government to use qualified companies -- the firms that often employ the kind of experienced people we want to volunteer for public service.

The public must keep an ever-watchful eye on relationships like the one between Mr. Disney and Whiting-Turner. But it's counterproductive not to deal with good companies to avoid conflicts that don't matter, or to discourage good people from serving by condemning them when they have done nothing improper.

Pub Date: 7/25/96

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