Is It a Conflict of Interest or Does It Just Look Bad? Public Officials and Nonprofits

Print Share on LinkedIn More

April 1, 2016; Columbus Dispatch

Is it a conflict of interest if a city councilmember appropriates public funds to a nonprofit he or she works for?

That’s the question that the Ohio Ethics Commission is wrestling with as it tries to clarify its position on elected officials who work for nonprofit organizations that receive public money, according to the Columbus Dispatch. The issue came up after an investigation that cleared Columbus City Council members of wrongdoing.

The commission wants to clarify when it becomes unethical for an elected official or the nonprofit that employs the official to profit from a public contract. For example, the article asks, is the elected official’s nonprofit salary being paid with money from that contract, or is the program that the official oversees for the nonprofit being supported by those public dollars?

“In other words: But for the public grant, would the official have a job?”

A legal advisor to the commission says it depends on whether there is “a position of profit” for the elected official: “At what point does that person step into the status that that person is making a profit?” The commission is expected to release a formal opinion next month.

The issue came up after a complaint was filed against Columbus’s mayor, city council president, and two current and former councilmembers. The question was over the legality of part-time council members working for nonprofit groups that receive city funding.

For example, the council president was working for a nonprofit as its legal counsel, while the city awarded it nearly $370,000. However, the city awarded similar amounts in years before he was hired. The current councilmember is a program director at another nonprofit that received about $650,000 in social service grants over the past two years. Columbus’ city attorney told the Dispatch that it would be difficult to determine the point of profit for someone working for a nonprofit.—Larry Kaplan