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Conflict of interest in Los Angeles government

As the cases of Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe and Los Angeles City Councilman Dennis Zine show, there's more to conflict of interest than just the law.

January 13, 2011

Some of Los Angeles' elected leaders are suffering one of their periodic bouts of forgetfulness, this time about what it means to have or avoid a conflict of interest.

Over at Los Angeles County, Supervisor Don Knabe thinks it's no big deal that he regularly takes action on matters before him that could benefit clients of his son, lobbyist Matt Knabe. Neither the supervisor nor his lobbyist son makes any apologies for those issues; each says he is merely doing his job.

At Los Angeles City Hall, Councilman Dennis Zine showed a tad more sensitivity when he quietly recused himself from a matter before the council that would affect a client of his girlfriend, also a lobbyist. But when Zine was pressed about three other votes in recent years involving his girlfriend's firm, the councilman's sanctimonious call for "transparency for all" suddenly went opaque. He would not discuss how long he and his girlfriend have been dating or whether he might have traversed the line in the past. "It's a personal relationship," he insisted.

In both instances, the supervisor and the councilman sought refuge in narrowly written definitions of conflict of interest. The county's code does not bar Knabe from voting on his son's projects because his son is grown and out of the house, and therefore awarding a contract or showing favor to one of Matt's clients does not affect Don's household bottom line. Technically, it's not a violation. As for Zine, if he were married to the woman in question, he wouldn't be allowed to vote on issues involving her clients. But because they're merely dating, he skates.

That's precisely the sort of legalism that infuriates those who butt heads with City Hall (or the county). For the benefit of our elected representatives, here's a quick primer: A conflict of interest is created anytime a person in authority acts with what are, or could reasonably be perceived to be, divided interests and thus one's impartiality could be questioned. If a supervisor approves a contract, the public should be confident that he did so because it was in the public's interest, not to help his girlfriend, no matter how long they've been dating, or his son, no matter how grown up he is. When side interests arise, officials who care about the spirit of the law and the public trust are wise to step aside and let their colleagues consider the questions, even if there's no explicit language that says they have to.

Take note, Supervisor Knabe and Councilman Zine.

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