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Case 12: Possible Conflict of Interest

Bill Quinn is the State Archaeologist for one of the states in the Midwest. He is thus an employee of the state. Among the many responsibilities of his office is the issuance of antiquities permits to allow qualified archaeologists to do contract archaeology within the state. In this context, his office often defines the scope of the archaeological work to be done, prepares requests for proposals to do the work, evaluates proposals (often submitted by private firms in a competitive bidding situation), decides who will be awarded the contract, and ultimately judges the adequacy of the work performed.

Mike is another full-time state employee as the State Highway Salvage Archaeologist. He has decided to open his own (private) firm on the side, and has applied for an antiquities permit so that he too might bid on and receive some of these lucrative contracts. Bill is concerned about this, because even though Mike is an honorable person, he will be placing himself in a potential conflict of interest situation. This is because Mike, as a part of his official duties as a public servant, can take part in (and potentially influence) some of the archaeological contract decisions and evaluations mentioned above. He and/or others in his office would, among other things, be in a position to have prior knowledge of future contracts and be in conflict of interest through the contract process. In short, it would be possible for Mike to use his position as a public official to gain unfair advantage over his competitors in the private sector.

The Twofold Dilemma: (1) Should Bill issue an antiquities permit to Mike? (2) Is it ethical for a public official (Mike, in this case) to be, or allow himself to be, in a potential conflict of interest situation of this nature, even though in fact he has no intention of abusing his official position for personal gain (i.e., no actual conflict of interest has occurred)? Or, is it unethical only if he actually acts in conflict of interest?

Quinn's Decision

Bill decided that it would be inappropriate for Mike to hold an investigative permit which would give him the authority to bid on any activities actually or potentially related to federal, state, or local compliance or associated competitive processes. Because problems emanating from prior knowledge and conflict of interest are common to both public and private sectors of employment, Bill used the following guidelines to assess the present situation and to develop policy for future comparable situations:

From the Principles of Professional Responsibility, item 5, "Responsibility to Sponsors": "[An anthropologist] should be especially careful not to promise or imply acceptance of conditions contrary to [his] professional ethics or competing commitments."

From the proposed revisions, AAA Code of Ethics: "Anthropologists must seriously consider their own moral responsibility for their acts when there is a risk that an individual, group, or organization may be hurt or jeopardized physically, legally, in reputation, or in self-esteem as a result."

In this instance, the individual, the company, competing companies, and the primary (public) agency come into potential conflict.

Bill further considered the following: Even if individuals do not compete within their own agency for contracts, it is inevitable that they would at some time be in competition for contracts with groups which would fall under the regulatory review, inspection, or proposal review and award function of their primary agency employer(s). By the agency anthropologist engaging in such competition, his or her disinterest would necessarily be suspect and the credibility of the agency itself called into question.