By John Crowder
A review of emails obtained through a California Public Records Act request reveals that the Contra Costa County Office of Education (CCCOE) considered the issue of a possible conflict of interest for board member Richard Asadoorian in the Dozier-Libbey Medical High School (DLMHS) conversion charter school petition appeal. Asadoorian is married to Antioch Unified School District (AUSD) Board Member Barbara Cowan, who voted against the DLMHS conversion petition. There had been some discussion that he should recuse himself from the appeal process.
Emails reveal that county staff were considering how to advise Asadoorian on this matter by mid-April. In an April 11 email from CCCOE Controller Jane Shamieh to Associate Superintendent Bill Clark, she relates a discussion she had with attorney Adam Ferber, from whom she had been seeking advice on the charter question. She says, “He (Ferber) asked if the board member (Asadoorian) with the conflict is going to recuse himself.” She continues, “When I told him I wasn’t sure he said that he absolutely should.” She goes on to say that this opinion is based on community property law, and that his wife has a financial interest because she is paid by Antioch.”
According to Asadoorian, he was approached by county staff with a recommendation that he recuse himself. “Staff presented cases based on common law. My own attorney looked at it, and (rejected their analysis). My own legal counsel saw no case study substantiating the idea that I should recuse myself, and I know other spouses have been in similar situations.”
Indeed, conflicts of interest are extremely common, in government and otherwise. The existence of a conflict of interest is not, in and of itself, an indication of unethical behavior or wrongdoing. Conflicts can exist whenever a situation occurs in which a person has more than one interest at stake in a decision. Concern arises when the possibility exists that a secondary interest might overshadow a primary interest. In this case, the questions raised were twofold. One was whether or not Asadoorian would be able to vote differently than his wife simply because of their relationship. The second, and the one being addressed by the CCCOE, was whether the stipend she received as an AUSD board member might influence his vote.
With respect to laws concerning conflict of interest, the husband/wife relationship is not even a consideration. Examples abound of relatives holding government offices (even the same offices held by Asadoorian and Cowan, as Walter and Cynthia Ruehlig were similarly situated in the not-so-distant past) and, while there exists the possibility of someone wanting to do a favor for a relative, conflict of interest laws do not generally focus on this relationship because it is so difficult to quantify the effect. Therefore, such laws focus on financial interest, because they are easier to quantify and are more objective.
In this case, Cowan is not employed by AUSD, but she does receive a stipend of $400 per month for her service on the board, along with another, smaller payment she receives in lieu of insurance offered to board members. It was argued that Asadoorian has a financial interest because of community property laws.
Public officials are expected to put their duty to the public (their primary duty) ahead of any secondary interest (such as an interest Asadoorian might have in the stipend received by Cowan). Conflict of interest laws are supposed to prevent decisions that could reasonably be perceived as being unduly influenced. Ultimately, it was up to Asadoorian to make the decision as to whether or not he might be influenced by the stipend his wife receives. It is hard to imagine that this small stipend could exert that level of influence. This is especially true when you consider that some, if not all of it, must be expended by her in the performance of her duties, i.e., local travel and other necessary expenses associated with serving on the board, for which she is not reimbursed.
Asadoorian ultimately determined, after consultation with county staff, and with his own attorney, that it was not appropriate to recuse himself. After a thoughtful consideration of the matter, it is hard to understand how he could reasonably have been expected to do otherwise.