JEFFERSON — Officials from across Ashtabula County were engaged and intent Friday on a presentation the Ohio Ethics Commission hopes will help them avoid ethical dilemmas.
Susan Willeke, a spokesperson for the Ohio Ethics Commission, gave a presentation on the dos and don’t of ethics law in front of a full house in the County Commissioners room. Her presentation used a mix of humor to touch upon topics of conflicts of interest, accepting gifts, public contracts and nepotism.
Willeke, who pointed out she too is bound to follow ethics law, said it is important public officials understand the restrictions imposed upon them. Yet she said it is equally important to not to jump to extremes.
For example, a public official allowing a vendor to provide cookies would be a minor unethical practice that wouldn’t constitute a violation of the law, she said. On the other end of the spectrum would be the thought that as long as bribes aren’t being accepted there isn’t a problem.
Such extremes exist because there is a long history of officials abusing the public trust, Willeke said, which creates a scenario where people think unethical behavior requires a giant scandal. But the law is more nuanced than cookies and bribes.
“I was approached by someone once who told me that I’m preaching to the choir because ‘we are the good guys and I would never take a bribe,’” Willeke said. “Does that make any of you nervous? That that could be an elected official’s litmus test of unethical behavior? That’s your measurement? I don’t take bribes so therefore I must be ethical? That would be like me adding a tagline to my name — Susan Willeke, at least I’m not a felon.”
A large range of actions can constitute unethical behavior, from a health inspector inspecting his mom and dad’s restaurant to a public official accepting a ticket to an Ohio State Buckeyes’ game because he doesn’t consider it monetary, Willeke said. Unethical behavior doesn’t have to be as egregious as the real world example of a state employee inspecting a string of daycare centers she and her husband owned.
It’s not possible to find someone void of personal bias, Willeke said, and it is common for potential conflicts of interest to present themselves. It’s how public officials react to those biases or potential conflicts that matters most. The best thing for a public official facing a conflict to do is to walk away from the situation.
“Having a conflict of interest has never been illegal,” Willeke said. “It is when people act on those conflicts of interest that we actually see a crime under Ohio Ethics Law.”
When it comes to accepting gifts, Ohio law does not stipulate a dollar amount, only whether the gift is substantial or improper. A vendor-purchased dinner at Bob Evans might not violate the law, while dinner at a high-end restaurant complete with the best wine and most expensive menu items would.
And when it comes to unlawful interests in public contracts, a contract means any time a government entity spends money. That could mean the trustee who takes home a township backhoe on weekends to do work on the side, the library director who uses the copier to print hundreds of flyers for their business, the state employee who uses a state computer to run a real estate business or the fireman who uses a ladder truck on a home painting job.
Securing a public contract for yourself, family members or business associates is a big no no, Willeke said, as is using public time or equipment for personal business.
“Public employees and public officials should not use public time and equipment to operate their private businesses,” she said.
Williamsfield Township Trustee Gary Babb said there are trustees around the county who don’t have problems appointing relatives to zoning boards and there was once a trustee in an area township who rented his family’s road grader to the township.
Babb said he abstains from contracts with the Andover fire department because, prior to becoming a trustee, he installed garage doors for them.
“There are a lot of grey lines in small towns because everybody knows everybody, everybody went to school together and the rest of us are related,” he said.
Pierpont Township Trustee Bob Jackson, who recently found himself at the center of accusations by the township’s former fiscal officer that he had an unlawful interest in a public contract, said he applauds those who bring such problems to his attention.
“Now I can react to it, address it, better myself and better the people around me,” he said. “That’s what we’re going to do.”
Ohio law states public employees and elected officials must receive copies of the Ohio Ethics law within 15 days of being hired or sworn in. Employees or officials also must sign off saying they received the document, something Jackson and other trustees said they knew nothing about.
Jackson, who also serves as the Ashtabula County Township Trustee Association president, said that is going to change.
“We are going to try to make this law known to everyone,” he said. “There will be a handbook for new officials. I can’t speak for villages, but as townships we are going to start enforcing this.”
At the end of her presentation Friday, Willeke said nepotism, or public officials securing jobs for their relatives, remains one of the biggest problems her office handles — about one third of cases.
“As a taxpayer it should infuriate you to know that all around Ohio people continue to get public jobs simply because they were well-connected and not necessarily well-qualified,” she said.