Bolton: Conflict of interest

Associate EditorFebruary 4, 2010 

IF COLUMBIA mayoral candidate Steve Benjamin is elected, he might not have to recuse himself from issues involving payday lending after all.

Mr. Benjamin sent a message about how far he's willing to go to become mayor of the capital city last week when he announced his resignation from the board of the nation's largest payday lender. While his resignation from Advance America's board doesn't become effective until well after the election - some wonder whether he'll really step down if he loses - it was a pretty notable move. He chose Columbia over a cushy board position that pays a mighty tidy sum.

Mr. Benjamin has said the election should be about the future of the city, not payday lending. In removing what he termed a "distraction," he also minimized a big negative for his campaign. Some people had said they wouldn't support him because of his payday affiliation. Even some supporters said they had to first push pass the ties.

With Mr. Benjamin's resignation, pressure shifts to one of his chief opponents for mayor, attorney Steve Morrison, to determine how he will handle his own tie with Advance America. Mr. Morrison represents Ken Compton, CEO of Advance America, in a legal matter and has been unwilling to talk about specifics. Mr. Compton has been the subject of a federal investigation involving possible insider trading.

Based on what I know, I don't see Mr. Morrison's relationship to Mr. Compton as any different than I would a plumber or physician who provides a service to someone who works in the payday lending industry. But the fact that payday lending is fresh on city residents' minds means any candidate even remotely tied to a payday lender must explain himself. Mr. Morrison, citing attorney-client privilege, has said little about the case. Recently, he said he doesn't intend to abandon a client. Both positions are understandable - and even admirable - under normal circumstances.

Mr. Morrison must find a way to hand off the case, perhaps to a colleague in his vast firm, Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough, or at the least sufficiently and openly explain the alliance.

When you decide to run for public office, voters will demand and deserve to know as much as possible about your business relationships and various other alliances. Candidates aren't compelled to sever relationships that might cause conflicts. Some are elected despite them and simply don't participate in deliberations if a potential conflict arises.

Mr. Benjamin has shown he's aware of the need to avoid conflicts. Not only has he resigned from Advance America's board, but he also has stepped away from other endeavors, some of which could have led to conflicts if he were elected. Much of the focus has been on his payday lending alliance because City Council was debating new zoning rules that limit where payday lenders can locate and there is such a strong negative reaction to the lenders' loan practices. Many in the city were concerned about Mr. Benjamin's tie to the predatory industry and questioned how he would respond if he's elected and a related issue should come before the council.

Mr. Benjamin had said previously that he would recuse himself. But an elected leader who has to recuse himself on too many important issues will be ineffective and will draw the ire of voters.

So, it makes sense - and was the right thing to do - for Mr. Benjamin to sever a number of relationships to avoid potential conflicts. Since announcing his candidacy, he removed himself from two development plans receiving city funds and resigned from the board of the National Bank of South Carolina. Mr. Morrison also serves on the NBSC board, but said he would not be resigning. Columbia does not have any accounts with the bank.

If elected, Mr. Benjamin would also have to deal with another potential conflict in that his wife, DeAndrea, is a city judge appointed by City Council. Only the council can remove a judge.

Under the city's current form of government, whomever is mayor stands a great chance of having to remove himself from discussions about crucial issues because of business relationships.

It happened to Mayor Bob Coble, whose full-time job as a lawyer led to potential conflicts at times. When neighbors wanted a nuclear laundry that operated in a residential area moved or closed, Mayor Coble could not play an active role because a law partner represented the laundry (which ultimately moved). When developer Burroughs & Chapin wanted to build a large development along the river, questions were raised about Mayor Coble's ability to participate in decisions because two of his law partners were connected to the people or entities who had interest in the project. Not only that, two council members - Frannie Heizer and Hamilton Osborne - recused themselves from voting on or discussing the project because their law firms represented the developers.

It's troubling when the mayor - or council members - has to recuse himself from participating in important issues before the council because of other alliances.

This is another instance where the city's council-manager form of government clearly does not serve the city well. If the mayor were full-time, it would strengthen the mayor's allegiance to the city, and greatly reduce the chance that he would have to recuse himself from critical decisions.

That's why it's so important that Columbia change its form of government and allow a full-time, elected executive to run the city.

City Council members will always run into potential conflicts. But the voice of the mayor, the elected head of the city government, should never be silent when the people's business is being conducted.

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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