Friday, January 16, 2009

A Conflict of Interest for Hillary Clinton? Isn't Marriage the Wrong Dividing Line?

Hillary Clinton's confirmation hearing contained many references to potential conflicts of interest posed by her job as Secretary of State in the face of fundraising by her husband -- our former president -- for his foundation. I've followed the controversy (which might be too large of word to use in this instance), and it makes me wonder.

Isn't it time to stop thinking of conflicts of interest in the specific context of marriage and other formal family relationships? It's a habit to think that way, but it's a habit that has outlived its usefulness. We want public officials who act in the public interest. All sorts of relationships might give pause, including unmarried partners and their family members and close friends whose well-being is dear to a person in consideration for a high government position.

When our laws limit required disclosures to spouses and immediate family, they miss the more expansive way many people define family today. Canada's Beyond Conjugality report addressed this is the context of financial dealings with banks and concluded that special rules should apply to anyone who had a close personal relationship with a director, officer, or significant shareholder of a bank. And, I might add, when that report came out Canadian law already included unmarried partners on the list of those subject to special rules.

All the talk about Hillary and Bill just reinforces the idea that it's their marriage that causes the possible conflict. But consider just one high-profile close friendship: Oprah Winfrey and Gayle King. If Oprah was up for a position subject to conflicts of interest concerns, I'd put Gayle on the list of folks who would be in the mix for investigation. Any law that missed her would really miss the point, wouldn't it?

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