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Jan Baran Comments on Murky Standards for Ethics Cases

Roll Call
July 25, 2012

Jan Baran, co-chair of Wiley Rein’s Election Law & Government Ethics Practice, was interviewed by Roll Call on two conflicts-of-interest investigations being conducted by the House Ethics Committee into whether elected officials used their office for personal financial gain.

Roll Call reported that “the chain of events leading to the probes of Democratic Reps. Shelley Berkley (NV) and Maxine Waters (CA) are straightforward and factually similar: Both lawmakers urged outside entities to take actions that would, if successful, eventually benefit their spouses financially.”

Mr. Baran told Roll Call that cases like these fall into a gray area because conclusions could hinge on establishing intent.

“I think Representatives are all trying to do the right thing, but there will be some differences of opinion sometimes when it comes to conflicts-of-interest cases.  It’s an area that’s a little ambiguous and less clear-cut,” said Mr. Baran.

Mr. Baran said the rules pertaining to conflicts of interest do not raise red flags unless a lawmaker has a direct and specific financial interest.  “The general principle is that the ethics rules discourage finding a conflict of interest because the consequence is so dramatic, it prevents a Member or Representative from participating or voting on legislative matters,” said Mr. Baran. “Unlike judges or executive branch personnel, Members cannot recuse themselves or give the vote to someone else.”