How not to get your next job

A prior post catalogued various  COI issues arising from moving from one job to another. To this inventory should be added the recent case of David Ostermeyer (which was brought to my attention by a COI blog reader, for which I am grateful).

As described in this press release issued on October 25, 2013 by the Department of Justice,  Ostermeyer had been the Chief Financial Officer of U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and “shortly before [he] retired from the USAID, he helped the agency draft a contract solicitation for a senior advisor – a position that Ostermeyer intended to apply for after he retired.  In an effort to ensure he would be awarded the position, Ostermeyer allegedly tailored the solicitation to his specific skills and experiences.”

The press release further notes: “Federal conflict of interest laws prohibit executive branch employees from participating personally and substantially in matters in which they have a financial interest.  Since Ostermeyer had a financial interest in the contract solicitation, the government alleged that he could not participate in drafting it and, therefore, violated 18 U.S.C. § 208(a),” which is one of the Federal COI statutes.  Ostermeyer agreed to settle (without admitting wrongdoing) and pay a penalty of $30,000.

For those interested in learning more about the federal COI law – violations of which, in some instances, can be prosecuted criminally as well as civilly – the web site of the Office of Government Ethics (“OGE”) is the place to start.   Of course, other governmental entities have their own COI rules – and sometimes have web sites like that of OGE.   (An example that is rich in information – particularly concerning prior enforcement actions – is the web site of the NY Conflicts of Interest Board. Among other things, much of what’s on this and similar web sites can be useful for drafting COI policies and designing COI training.)

Even smaller municipal governments than that of NYC often have COI issues, too. Indeed, the very size of small communities may make COIs relatively more likely to occur in their governmental bodies than in those of larger municipalities  (i.e., on average, I assume there would be a higher percentage of people with multiple roles, and thus opportunities for conflicts, in the former than the latter). Also,  local governmental units may well lack robust ethics-related controls that larger official entities more typically have, as noted in this prior post. On the other hand, where ethics issues involve dealing with neighbors instead of strangers,  there would seem to be a greater chance  of virtue prevailing (although note that I may be stretching the logic of certain behavioral ethics research a bit in saying this and indeed some findings in this area suggest an opposite impact of closeness on ethicality).

Indeed, in the very town where I live – Princeton, New Jersey – the top local news story of the past week was the mayor’s decision whether to participate in negotiations with Princeton University (over the issue of  voluntary payment-in-lieu-of-taxes contribution to the town)  given that her husband is employed as a professor there. While “the town attorney, had given an opinion in August saying the mayor’s marriage did not constitute a conflict of interest under the state local government ethics law,”  the mayor commendably determined that the issue had become too much of a distraction for the town government and so decided to recuse herself from taking part in the negotiations. One wishes that the former USAID official had shown the same degree of sensitivity to COIs that the mayor did, and I imagine that he now does too.

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