California has a strict conflict-of-interest law designed to block public officials from self-dealing with public contracts.
The law, which dates back to soon after California became a state in 1850, prohibits government workers and elected representatives from profiting from their official actions.
In 2017, the state Supreme Court wisely clarified that the public contract conflict law, Government Code Section 1090, also applies to contractors who advise government agencies.
Now, as first revealed by CALmatters columnist Dan Walters, a coalition of professional building interests is seeking to carve out an exception -- to be able to advise, for example, a local school board or city council on a planned building project and then profit from the advice they provide.
Assembly Bill 626, authored by Assemblywoman Sharon Quirk-Silva, D-Fullerton, would essentially exempt engineers, geologists, architects, landscape architects, land surveyors and planners from the state conflict law.
Backers of this horrible idea offer a self-serving claim that the bill is needed to ensure that there are enough professionals willing to provide governments with advice and design services. But there's no sign of a shortage of professionals. And, even if there were, that's not justification for locking in unacceptable conflicts of interest.
Worse, AB 626 sets a dangerous precedent for other special interests seeking carve-outs so they can reap extra profits at taxpayer expense.
Yet the bill already has made it through two Assembly committees and awaits a vote on the Assembly floor. Lawmakers should stop it in its tracks. They should put taxpayers and the public interest above the greed of some special interests.
To understand what's at stake, consider an example brought in 2017 to the state Fair Political Practices Commission, which issues opinions on the scope of the conflict law.
Mono County had hired an architectural firm to assess the jail needs of the county and develop construction options based on those needs. The county wanted to know if it could then hire the same architectural firm to prepare the plans for the jail and provide architectural services through construction.
The FPPC wisely said no. If the firm provided the construction services, it would be financially benefitting from the earlier advice it had provided on the scope of the project.
Or, put another way, if professional firms that provide advice on the need and size of a project know they will be able to then help design it under a second contract, they will have a financial incentive to overstate the need and size.
That alone should be enough for legislators to see the potential conflict. Making matters worse, governments can issue professional service contracts like these to the firm they like the best, not necessarily the firm that provides the lowest bid.
So these sorts of contracts already are exceptionally vulnerable to political influence, especially through campaign donations. Allowing these firms to then profit on their own advice doubles down on the potential for corruption.
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