Last week, just as the Allen County Ethics Commission was preparing to end a high-profile conflict-of-interest investigation against County Councilman Paul Moss, Moss and several other county officials quietly were being offered free VIP passes to the big-budget Batman show at the Memorial Coliseum.
And that's probably not even the best example of the limitations inherent in the county's 2005 ethics policy, which last week produced a non-ruling that may – or may not – have represented precisely the kind of conflict the statute was intended to address.
In the days preceding Friday's commission hearing, which featured a written apology by Moss and a decision by Commission members Tom Hardin and Wendy Stein to dismiss the case without deciding whether the policy had been violated or not, attorneys for Moss and the Commission exchanged e-mails on a matter central to the case:
Did Hardin himself have a conflict of interest that should have kept him from voting on the alleged conflict created by Moss' phone call to Sheriff Ken fries following a June traffic stop?
The argument put forth by Moss' attorney, former City Councilman Tim Pape, was this: In Hardin's role as an assistant Allen County attorney, he is paid more than $36,000 to handle a variety of legal matters that at times have involved County Council. In an e-mail to Commission attorney Tim McCaulay, Pape noted that as a member of Council Moss has authority over the budget and “has over the years consistently and at times insistently questioned the spending upon county attorneys. Now (Hardin) is sitting in judgment of (Moss).”
McCaulay, however, responded that neither he nor Hardin believed recusal was necessary because Hardin had not done work for the Council since 2007, was not hired as attorney by the Council and is not subject to the ethics ordinance because he is also bound by legal codes of conduct.
The county's code exempts employees covered by other policies, which is why it had previously dismissed former county employee Phil Pease's complaint against Fries, who is subject to Indiana Sheriff's Association guidelines.
“I don't believe (Hardin) had a vendetta against me, but I've argued all along that the County Council attorney shouldn't have been sitting in judgment of me,” Moss said.
Of course, If Hardin had recused himself, the case against Moss might still be going on more than six months after a county officer pulled him over on Dupont Road. Moss said he had left home early that morning to pick up his daughter and several friends who had been at a bar and did not want to drive home. Moss said he may have been pulled over because he had swerved while texting, but denied having anything to drink. He refused a field sobriety test but said he called Fries only to expedite a trip downtown for a more reliable test.
Did Pape's conflict-of-interest allegation influence Hardin's willingness to dismiss the case without a formal resolution in exchange for an apology, which Moss said was included in a statement issued months ago? Hardin was unavailable for comment, but I suspect not. I have no reason to believe Hardin was motivated by anything but his desire for public accountability and disclosure.
But that's precisely the trouble with conflicts of interest: As Moss' statement last week acknowledged, even the appearance of a conflict can undermine the public's confidence in public officials and the decisions they make.
County Commissioner Nelson Peters, who wrote the ethics ordinance in 2005, said Hardin and fellow Commission member Wendy Stein have suggested that changes in the bill may be needed. They're right. The process should be expedited (without calling the sheriff!), authority over elected officials should be clarified and members of the Commission should have no ties to county government. Even so, Peters said the ordinance's central mission was largely accomplished in this case.
“The intent was transparency; so officials would be beyond reproach.” With a private legal bill of $10,000, certainly no one can argue Moss' case was swept under the rug.
But here's the irony: The Coliseum's offer of up to four tickets to “Batman Live” (provided by the show itself) costing up to $49.50 each does not necessarily violate the ordinance, said Chief Operations Officer Garnett Miller. The ordinance simply requires employees receiving gifts worth $25 or more to report the gift to the Commissioners' office. Several officials – many of whom have control over operations at the county-owned Coliseum -- have already accepted the passes.
It's a non-transferable offer, by the way, meaning you'll have to pay for your tickets.
Holy handout, Batman! Can't we do better than this?