LA Times Editorial - Family members of Politicians Shouldn't get to Cash in on their Connections

May 24, 2016

Elected officials in California control billions of taxpayer dollars. Their job is to spend that money wisely, on behalf of the people who elected them -- not to redirect it to themselves, their own families or loved ones. 

That's why California law prohibits state and local elected officials  from “self-dealing” -- voting on matters that would offer financial benefits to members of their households, including their minor children and spouses. For example, if a city councilwoman's husband were a graphic designer bidding for a lucrative contract to redesign the city’s logo, she would not be allowed to vote on the contract.

Yet there’s no law that stops lawmakers from  voting to benefit other close family members.  If the councilwoman's beloved son (out of work since graduating from college, poor guy) were competing for the logo contract, she could vote to give it to him. Or her brother. Or her parents. 

That doesn’t just feel wrong, it is wrong. In most families, the financial interdependency of parents and their children never completely ends. And though siblings might not be as financially intertwined, there's bound to be a natural (and understandable) bias toward loved ones.

This is not  just a hypothetical problem. There are number of cases in which local elected officials have voted in ways that benefited close family members. Los Angeles County Supervisor Don Knabe, for example, has regularly voted on contracts that benefit paying clients of his son, lobbyist Matt Knabe. And just recently in tiny, financially troubled Maywood, one councilman voted to raise his sister's pay (she is the city's treasurer) by more than 300%. 

Maybe these were justifiable  decisions and had nothing to do with family ties. But how can the public be sure? Better to remove the potential for conflict altogether. SB 1011 by Sen. Tony Mendoza (D-Artesia) would do that by extending the family interest prohibitions to siblings, parents, adult children and in-laws.

This bill stalled last year after legitimate concerns were raised that legislators might unknowingly vote on an item that involved a  family member. It could happen (for instance, if the family member were estranged), and the penalties would be severe – including being banned from holding public office for life. Mendoza revised the current bill to say that a public official must know about the conflict for it to be a violation.

This is a reasonable bill  and legislators should prove that, while they may love their families, they won't put their relatives' interests before the public's trust.