Conflict of interest is clear in retrospect

West Virginia Ethics Commission members usually take a hard, no-nonsense attitude toward conflicts of interest by public officials. That makes a decision they made some time ago, regarding former state Agriculture Commissioner Gus Douglass, very puzzling.

Financial irregularities during Douglass’ long tenure at the agency are being looked into by the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of West Virginia. That came about after an audit of the department was conducted, at the request of new Commissioner Walt Helmick.

Results of the audit were released Monday. They detail a variety of financial irregularities.

Among them are problems with a $5 million loan program administered by the agriculture department.

According to a preliminary audit document released last month, 25 of the 40 loans made through the program were delinquent – and in nearly half those cases, no effort had been made to collect the money.

It gets worse: The document released Monday notes that Douglass’ son received a $45,000 loan and $18,500 in refinancing through the program.

Most people probably would view that as an unacceptable conflict of interest. But before the money was provided to Douglass’ son, an opinion was sought from the Ethics Commission.

Members of that panel said the loans would be all right, as long as Douglass himself did not vote as part of the committee considering the matters involving his son.

Members of the Ethics Commission were naive in providing that go-ahead. Legislative auditors reviewing the matter were not. They noted that all four members of the committee that acted favorably toward Douglass’ son were appointed by the commissioner and were employees of the agriculture agency.

Of course. Turning down a request for public money from your boss’ son is not exactly a formula for career advancement. A clear conflict of interest existed. Yet, because it was not direct, the Ethics Commission overlooked it.

Obviously, state legislators need to take another look at conflict of interest laws. They need to be tightened to ban indirect conflicts that stink just as badly as the direct ones.