UM professor reprimanded for apparent conflict of interest

He wrote legal opinion on university letterhead, did not disclose fees from union

January 23, 2010|By Childs Walker | childs.walker@baltsun.com

A professor at the University of Maryland, College Park is facing conflict-of- interest questions after he used university letterhead to deliver a legal opinion in his role as a consultant to a labor union.

Fred Feinstein, an adjunct professor at the School of Public Policy, wrote a letter saying that California health care employees could jeopardize their contract benefits if they left Service Employees International for a competing union. Feinstein received $240,000 in consulting fees from SEIU in 2007 and 2008, which he did not mention in the Jan. 12 letter that was distributed as a flier in the continuing union battle.

Officials of the rival National Union of Healthcare Workers say Feinstein implied that he was speaking for the university and thus compromised its academic objectivity. The Web site Inside Higher Ed first reported Feinstein's role in the conflict.

College Park officials said Feinstein violated university policy by writing the opinion on official letterhead. He signed the letter as a "senior fellow and visiting professor."

"Mr. Feinstein violated university procedures by improperly using university letterhead in the course of his outside work," Donald F. Kettl, dean of the School of Public Policy, said in a statement. "This activity was wholly unrelated to his work at the University of Maryland, which has no involvement or stake in this outside matter. He should not have written the material on university letterhead nor invoked his title as a university employee. In addition, he should have disclosed the payment he received from one of the parties in the issue on which he commented."

Kettl said he reprimanded Feinstein in writing and asked him to inform all recipients of the SEIU letter that he was not speaking for the university.

Feinstein, a former general counsel for the National Labor Relations Board, said he made a mistake using the letterhead but said the competing union, NUHW, is trying to exploit his carelessness to get a leg up in the bitter labor battle.

"I wasn't as conversant as I should have been with the guidelines for using letterhead," Feinstein said. "It was an unfortunate oversight. But this is part of a pretty intense battle, no holds barred, and I think it's important to understand that context."

Feinstein said he stands behind the opinion he delivered and doubts that the letterhead made much difference to workers reading the document.

Feinstein's consulting, a matter of public record because of union financial filings, does not violate his contract as a part-time professor, Kettl said. Feinstein said he felt no need to disclose his relationship with SEIU in the letter, because readers would understand without being told that it is a lawyer's job to deliver opinions on behalf of paying clients.

"He's either being disingenuous or he's very naive," said NUHW Vice President John Borsos, who added that the letters were still circulating in California hospitals on Thursday.

Conflict of interest is a major issue in higher education, though questions usually arise around academic research produced by professors with financial ties to corporations. Harvard Medical School, for example, has faced widespread concerns about fees paid to professors by pharmaceutical companies.

NUHW leaders said Feinstein's letter imperils the University of Maryland's credibility and comes off as a scare tactic aimed at workers who had no way of knowing Feinstein's background.

"While we believe Mr. Feinstein's analysis is at least disingenuous, if not questionable, our greater concern is that this 'legal opinion' was communicated in a manner that suggests its endorsement by a seemingly neutral source, the University of Maryland," wrote attorney Latika Malkani in a letter to Kettl.

Kettl said he sent a letter to his faculty members reinforcing the university's rules for outside work.

"Mr. Feinstein's activity and lack of transparency was unrelated to his university work and does not reflect the academic integrity and the high standards of Maryland scholarship," the dean said in his statement. "We are taking strong and immediate steps to set this right and to avoid a repeat of this breach by any of our employees."

But those actions aren't enough, said Borsos, who wants the university to issue a response that could be distributed to the 100,000 workers involved in the dispute.

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