Business Associates and Classes

Larry Valencia and John Marion (of Operation Clean Government and Common Cause Rhode Island, respectively) are exactly right about union members’ being “business associates” who should be barred from self-dealing (or associate-dealing) as public officials:

First, [the RI Ethics Commission] is not making a change to the code itself, but rather in a “General Commission Advisory,” which is a document to provide guidance to those who might be seeking the commission’s advice. Second, the opinion of the commission is based on the “business associate” section of the code, and not the “conflict of interest” section. We feel this is a mistake because this situation is clearly not in keeping with either section. A member of a union is clearly a business associate of other local affiliates of that union. This relationship is particularly strong when the parent union sends professional negotiators into multiple jurisdictions. However, it is also a conflict of interest for a public official to negotiate with an organization of which they are a member.

But the two may proceed a step too far with this:

What the commission is doing, however backward its approach, is to begin closing the loophole that allows people to self-deal. That is what the “class exception” is all about. Our groups did not push the commission to begin closing this loophole by targeting union members. We feel it is equally important that anyone serving as a public official should not be allowed to use his or her official capacity to provide benefits to members of the profession he or she is a part of, no matter what that profession is, and no matter if everyone in that profession benefits equally.

My mind turns to the General Assembly’s recent debate of a bill that applied a maximum supervisor-to-apprentice ratio for a broad range of construction trades. Among the most vocal opponents was Jay Edwards (D, Tiverton), who works for a construction company in Middletown. From one perspective, Edwards was arguing against an imposition on his industry “class.” From another perspective, he’s uniquely in a position to understand how silly and wasteful it is to insist that every apprentice bricklayer should be supervised by a journeyman or master, as well as to appreciate the effect on project costs of such regulations.
As we’ve been discussing with “merit pay,” social structures cannot be defined to the finest detail. Even the most well informed gang of citizens shouldn’t attempt to contrive a formula into which employers punch some numbers to come up with an “objective” measure of and compensation for meritorious work. Just so, citizens shouldn’t strive for a too-strict path down which lawmakers can walk; it will wind up restricting the good and honest and assisting the crooked and devious.
“Business associate” suggests a close relationship. “Class” is far too broad, and frankly, binding classes in ethics regulations would disenfranchise those who wish to determine the course of their government in the areas about which they have the most expertise. The critical remedy for Rhode Island’s ills is a healthier political environment, with greater involvement and competition, and layers of “can’t do” rules hinder that effort.
Were there more openness and competition, the political system would restrain corruption at the “class” level, because the stain that accompanies dealing to “business associates” would be readily applied more broadly.

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