Conflicts of interest

By Mike Linn: CNJ news editor

Curry County Sheriff Roger Hatcher spent six to eight weeks in the fall managing a construction project about two miles outside the Curry County line. His employer was Tim Ashley, one of five county commissioners responsible for setting the sheriff’s annual budget.

Was the arrangement between the two elected officials a conflict of interest?

Hatcher and Ashley say no.

“If I would have thought that working for Tim Ashley would be a conflict I would have never taken the job,” Hatcher said.
One political opponent is not so sure.

“It’s damn near an ethical issue,” said former County Commissioner Paul D. Barnes, who lost in his comeback bid to Ashley in November.

In a small town, many say it’s virtually impossible to avoid all potential conflicts of interest. Area school, city, county and state officials often find themselves in positions where critics can claim impropriety.

Several local officials have recently been in positions where they represented the government agency with which they also conducted private business. Legally, Clovis City Attorney Dave Richards said that’s OK.

“There are Supreme Court decisions that have said we’re a state with a small population and we want to encourage people to run for office and serve their communities, so there shouldn’t be a blanket disqualification just because somebody may perform a service to the city, or the county or the schools,” Richards said.

Ethically, conflicts of interest are usually determined by the officials involved … or by public opinion.

• • •

Hatcher said he never failed in performance of his duties as Curry County’s sheriff while he was working for Commissioner Ashley in neighboring Quay County.

Each night, Hatcher said he returned to Clovis and completed paperwork for his sheriff duties. While managing the project near San Jon, about 50 miles from Clovis, he carried his cell phone and said he was available for law-enforcement duties whenever the need arose.

State officials said Hatcher’s second job did not violate any laws. Among those state officials was David Ruiz, director of local government division for the Department of Finance and Administration.

Ruiz said many elected officials, including sheriffs, have financial interests that go beyond their duties as a public official.

“Off the top of my head I haven’t heard of a similar situation (involving a sheriff working for a county commissioner),” he said, “but I don’t see anything that would prevent him from going out and moonlighting or whatever.”

Ashley and Hatcher said if no laws or ordinances are violated, then no conflict exists.

“Conflict of interest is just perception unless it goes against statute or ordinance,” Ashley said. “If anybody were to perceive (Hatcher’s employment as a conflict), they’re just looking for political gain.”

Enter Barnes.

He said the employment arrangement between Hatcher and Ashley is questionable, but he’s even more perturbed that most members of the public — including other commissioners — were unaware of the situation while it was going on.

“It looks like a cover-up deal … ” Barnes said. “If I was on the board I would have got that out in the open.”

Barnes said Hatcher should have spent more time fighting crime and less time freelancing for a fellow elected official.
“I don’t think you can say (the sheriff has) to be working 24 hours a day, but when you’re begging for new cars, better pay, then you better be down there working,” Barnes said.

Hatcher said such comments are unfair. He said his duty as sheriff is to keep the department running smoothly and the county safe from crime.

Historically, most local sheriffs, he said, have had other financial interests and worked other jobs, and whom he works for in his off time is nobody’s business.

Moreover, as an elected official Hatcher said he’s not required to work 40 hours a week, something state officials confirmed.

“I haven’t done anything out of line, and if (someone) doesn’t like the way I’m running my office, in two years they can put their name on the list and they can try to do it,” he said.

• • •

The region routinely sees cases involving potential conflicts of interest surrounding public officials.

Former 9th Judicial District Attorney Brett Carter said he experienced dilemmas when he moved to the public defender’s office late last year.

“The cases I worked on over there (as a prosecutor), I didn’t take when I got here just to make sure there wasn’t some sort of conflict,” he said.

And school board members and city commissioners have been in positions of working for companies that were selling products to the government entity they represented.
In the mid-1990s, then-City Commissioner Chad Lydick — owner of Lydick Engineers and Operators — submitted proposals for professional services for city projects.

Lydick would leave the room when commissioners voted on competing proposals, said Richards, the city attorney. Remaining commissioners typically selected the proposal recommended by the city’s Request for Proposals Evaluation Committee, Richards said. Lydick, who could not be reached for comment for this story, was never one of the three commissioners to serve on the RFP Evaluation Committee, said City Commissioner Isidro Garcia. The other members are appointed by the mayor.

“Chad was always very conscientious about never putting himself in a position of conflict of interest,” City Manager Joe Thomas said.

When George Banister was on the Clovis Municipal Schools board, he worked for a company that had a beverage contract with the school. He was also a partner with Plains Vending, the company PepsiCo subcontracted with to refrigerate the sodas at the schools. Banister, who no longer is a member of the school board, has said he never participated in contract negotiations, so he never felt like the arrangement caused any conflicts of interest.

But Clovis school board member Mark Lansford said he believes public officials should go out of their way to avoid even perceived conflicts of interest.

“How can we be truly independent, how can we be truly objective when we’re profiting off of the district?” he said. “I don’t think I have a problem with people on the board doing business with the district as long as they’re objective — but how can they remain objective? I don’t think I could.”

Due to the small population of rural communities, potential conflicts of interest may arise more often than they would in larger towns. There are fewer businesses to service the needs of the municipality, and fewer people to run for school, city and county commissions and boards.

“You don’t want to restrict it so that only retired people can serve the public,” Richards said.

Richards said states and communities with larger populations often follow a different set of guidelines.
While smaller communities are more lenient on board members doing business with the municipality for which they serve, Richards said public perception should be monitored.

• • •

Curry County Commissioner Pete Hulder said he had heard rumors of Sheriff Hatcher’s employment arrangement with Commissioner Ashley, but didn’t know much about it.

Hulder said he believes a public official facing potential conflicts of interest should put the issue before the public.
But he added: “I can see where they would not want to come out and say anything simply because they may not see an issue.”

Commissioner Albin Smith said he didn’t know enough about Hatcher’s employment to comment, and Commissioner Kathrynn Tate declined comment. Commissioner Ed Perales was out of town and could not be reached for comment.

Hatcher and Ashley said they did not alert the public to their working relationship because neither saw it as a public issue. After all, Hatcher said he’d been working for Ashley while a deputy, years before becoming sheriff.

Hatcher said he also has a private working relationship with Commissioner Perales. Hatcher sometimes hires Perales’ construction firm to do work on rental property that Hatcher owns.

Ashley and Perales voted to increase pay for the sheriff’s deputies in November. The $180,000 annual increase passed by a 3-2 vote, with Smith breaking the tie.

But anyone who questions whether a commissioner’s vote could be swayed by his business relationship with the sheriff is to unfairly question both elected officials’ integrity, Hatcher and Ashley said.

Even so, the public questioning elected officials is nothing new. Even Lydick, who officials say was dedicated to avoiding the appearance of impropriety, caught some flak for doing business with the city while serving on the City Commission.

“Chad probably got some criticism but he also got elected — you just have to deal with it and go on,” Richards said. “Anytime you talk about ethics you’re going to get debate.”

CNJ Staff Writer Ryan Lengerich contributed to this report.