Conflicts of Interest in the News – 012112 edition: Did Al Gore Have a COI at Apple?

Once again, conflicts of interest were much in the news this week – most prominently concerning payments to health care professionals by life science companies.     But potentially the most intriguing story for COI aficionados was entited: “Did Al Gore Violate Apple’s Business Conduct Policy?”

The piece, by Fox News, reported that “the National Center for Public Policy Research is urging Apple shareholders to vote for shareholder proposal # 4 in Apple’s 2012 proxy statement. The proposal, submitted by the National Center for Public Policy Research, asks Apple to determine if board member Al Gore violated the company’s Business Conduct Policy. At issue is whether Gore played a role in Apple’s 2009 decision to end its membership in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce as part of an effort to pressure the trade group to stop opposing greenhouse gas regulations. Several companies, including Apple, ended their relationship with the Chamber over the trade group’s aggressive opposition to the Waxman-Markey cap-and-trade bill and EPA regulation of carbon emissions. Gore’s significant personal investments in renewable energy and related technologies would have benefited from these greenhouse gas regulations.”

From another article, we also learn that  the “Apple board issued an accompanying statement recommending shareholders vote against the request, arguing such a disclosure is ‘not necessary nor a useful undertaking to foster transparency or accountability at the Board level’… Apple already has ‘a robust set a of policies’ in place to deal with any potential conflicts of interest, so the goal of the request has already been achieved in their view. ‘The decision in 2009 did not ‘harm Apple’s business interests in other policy matters’, nor does the Board believe it will in the future,’ the company said. Just a few weeks before resigning from the Chamber, Apple launched a vigorous new ‘green’ policy intended to make its product line more climate-friendly and energy efficient. It was that policy which led to the company’s decision, the board said, not ‘undue influence by any member of the board.’”

Comment: while COIs at the board level can, of course, be harmful, it is difficult (at least based on these public reports) to see the basis for the claim here, which is questionable on two levels. First, it seems to assume without any basis that Gore failed to disclose the investments in question; indeed, his investing heavily in this sector was evidently a long standing matter of public record at the time of the events in question. Second, the proposal also seems assumes that public companies may not as an ethical (and possibly legal) matter pursue socially responsible efforts; if true, this would come as a shock to the countless corporate board members and executives (of all political persuasions) who have undertaken clean energy and other socially responsible measures for their companies.

 

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