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Interpretative Opinion 98-08: Conflict of Interest

December 14, 1998

The Honorable Kevin P. Chavous
Councilmember - Ward 7
Council of the District of Columbia
441-4th Street, NW
Washington, DC  20001

Re: Conflict of Interest

Dear Councilmember Chavous:

This responds to your request for an opinion concerning whether your acceptance of assignments to serve on two DC Council Subcommittees, the Committee on Economic Development and the Committee on Finance and Revenue, will present a conflict of interest in view of your recent employment with the law firm of Arent Fox Kintner Plotkin & Kahn, P.L.L.C. (Arent Fox).  You state that your practice with the law firm will involve local business transactions, litigation and federal legislative matters, and that your compensation will not vary with the revenues or profits of the firm.  You further state that the areas in which you will practice would not involve you personally in matters for which either committee is responsible.  Moreover, you state that the law firm’s overall practice “includes only a few matters that come before the Council at all, and only a fraction of these matters have been within the jurisdiction of these two committees.”

In support of your representations, you submitted a letter from Christopher Smith, Managing Attorney for Arent Fox, as well as brief descriptions of the jurisdictions of the two Council committees pursuant to Council Rules.  Mr. Smith represents that the firm has been involved in only  a limited number of matters before the DC Council, representing less than 2 percent of the firm’s overall activities.  He states that in the past year, “these matters have consisted of about a dozen industrial revenue bond issues, a provision that was included in the “Workers Compensation Reform Act of 1998", and the “Reciprocal Insurance Company Conversion Act of 1998.”  Mr. Smith further confirms that it is expected that your practice will concentrate on “litigation, business transactions and federal legislative matters.”

DC Code § 1-1461(f) provides, in pertinent part,  “[n]o member or employee of the Council of the District of Columbia . . . shall accept assignment to serve on a committee the jurisdiction of which consists of matters (other than of a de minimis nature) in which he . . . or a business with which  he . . . is associated, has a financial interest.”   The term, “business with which he or she is associated”, means “any business of which the person or member of his or her household is a director, officer, owner, employee, or holder of stock worth $1,000 or more at fair market value, and any business which is a client of that person.”  DC Code § 1-1461(I)(3).

Notwithstanding your representations and those of Mr. Smith, there remains an area of uncertainty with respect to specific matters on which you may be required to act in your official capacity while serving on the aforementioned DC Council committees.  Based on the jurisdiction of the Economic Development Committee, and your representation that your practice at the firm would involve “local business transactions”, it is conceivable that such transactions could impact your work on this committee.  Further, since Arent Fox has been involved with industrial revenue bond issues before the Council, there may be similar matters before the Finance and Revenue Committee during your tenure on this committee that could affect the financial interests of the firm.  However, because of the speculative nature of your involvement in prospective legislative matters relative to these committees, we are unable, at this juncture, to determine whether your involvement would have a direct and predictable effect on your personal financial interests or those of the law firm.

Therefore, it is the opinion of the Office of Campaign Finance that you may serve on these committees, provided that you carefully assess matters pending the committees’ consideration to assure that your participation would not present an actual conflict of interest.  Where you determine that such is the case, you are advised to follow the recusal procedures outlined in DC Code § 1-1461(g) to remove or disqualify yourself from official action on the matter.