Conflict of Interest

There are two primary ways that conflicts of interest can occur. One is when a public servant accepts things like expensive gifts or even money. For more information regarding that provision of the law, please visit the gift link on our web site.

The second common conflict of interest it involves public officials and employees taking official action or making decisions in matters that definitely and directly affect themselves, their family members or their business associates.

The term “conflict of interest” is frequently used and often misunderstood. The basic assumption that underlies the Ethics Law is that Ohio deserve public servants who advance the public interest rather than their personal interests or those of closely related parties.

Having a conflict of interest is not illegal. In fact, conflicts are normal because public servants have families and friends, and may have businesses, professions, investments, property interests, and other connections to their communities. Any of these connections could result in a conflict of interest for the official. The issue is how the public servant responds to his or her conflict of interest. That’s what we’ll focus on in this course.

Simply put, a public official has a “conflict of interest” when his or her ability to be an objective decision-maker is impaired by his or her own interests, or the interests of family members or business associates.

Taxpayers in Ohio deserve to assume that government decisions, whether at the state or local level – are not compromised by a specific public servant’s benefit or personal gain. Every Ohioan has the right to expect that public decisions and public expenditures are objective and made with the public’s best interest at heart, not the interest of individual public officials and employees.

As a result, the Ohio Ethics Law prohibits public officials or employees from participating, in any way, in actions or decisions that directly involve their own financial interests, or those of their families or business associates.

Here are just a few examples of potential conflicts of interest in public service:

  • A state employee who works as an inspector for the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services conducts an inspection on behalf of her agency at the day care center that is owned by her sister.
  • A county prosecutor’s office employee investigates someone on behalf of the prosecutor’s office. Unfortunately, the “someone” being investigated is also the person who employs the county employee part-time in his private life.
  • A city employee who oversees public contract for the city government is monitoring landscaping work being conducted at a city park. The city employee also works for the landscaping company during on weekends.
  • At a board meeting, state board member discusses and votes on a matter that impacts a client of his firm.
  • A public employee applies for a job with the company she regulates on behalf of her public agency.

Please note that having a conflict of interest is not illegal. It is how the public official or employees responds to the conflict that would determine whether or not a violation has occurred.

When someone in public service is confronted with a conflict of interest, he or she must completely abstain from making decisions about or influencing how the matter is resolved.

Such abstention or recusal should include refraining from:

  • Voting
  • Discussing
  • Reviewing
  • Recommending
  • Inspecting
  • Investigating
  • Or taking any other action on the matter

Remember, public servants may NOT take any action in matters that definitely and directly affect themselves, their family members or their business associates.

The Ethics Commission is often asked if people in public service can own outside businesses or consulting services. In general, the answer is yes, assuming several things.

Owning or operating a private business must be entirely removed from public authority, conflicts of interest, and the use of public resources is strictly prohibited. Further, public servants need to be aware that they may not receive compensation from anyone, including clients, to represent or perform services on any matter that is before their own public agencies.

Even if plans, drawings or applications would be submitted to a different division within the agency, a public employee or official cannot be paid by a client to perform any services on a matter that is being reviewed or decided by his agency. Again, this is true even if he or she will not personally appear before the agency.

Additional Resources