Parkway votes clear conflict of interests

State Sen. David Hoyle, a Gaston Democrat, is an effective legislator who gets things done in Raleigh. And citizen David Hoyle is a successful investor who buys land, develops property and makes a lot of money.

But as the Observer's Steve Harrison pointed out Sunday, Citizen Hoyle may profit from a development near a new expressway that Sen. Hoyle voted for in the legislature.

While Sen. Hoyle's support for the planned Garden Parkway did not violate any law or ethics rule, his active support and votes on three occasions for a $1.2 billion highway project that could put a lot of money in his pocket has the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Sen. Hoyle says he didn't know the parkway might run near the 327 acres that he and a group of investors bought in 2006. But it was no secret. Gaston County planners had drawn paths the new toll road might take years before he and family members bought the land for hundreds of homes and a shopping center near a planned exit on the parkway.

It's out of sync with the senator's reputation as a savvy businessman and legislator not to have known the road was nearby. But Sen Hoyle believes the success of his development doesn't depend on the parkway even being built.

It's also somewhat baffling. Sen. Hoyle is a champion of the state's open government laws, often supporting measures to create more transparency in the conduct of the public's business. He disclosed his interest in the property as required and consulted others on whether he should recuse himself from voting. The law does not require that. It should. Allowing legislators to vote on projects that might have a beneficial impact on personal finances creates the impression that it's OK to use a public office for private gain. It isn't.

Such conflicts of interest are not unusual. Former Sen. Robert Pittenger, R-Mecklenburg, also has invested in land near the parkway. Mr. Pittenger, now the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor, says he recognized the potential conflict and did not vote on the parkway. In the House, Republican leader Skip Stam, a Wake County lawyer, also had a potential conflict over some land near the route of the new interstate corridor. Rep. Stam did the right thing: He recused himself from voting on the budget bill funding the road.

It seems to us that's the right way to handle things. The public likely understands that citizen-legislators sometimes have conflicts between their responsibilities as representatives of the public and their own private affairs. It's how they handle those conflicts that either reassures the public that its business comes first, or creates the suspicion – sometimes the certainty – that politicians are feathering their own nests.

Sen. Hoyle's strong support for the Garden Parkway at a time he was investing in nearby land constitutes an apparent conflict of interest. If legislative ethics rules and Sen. Hoyle don't recognize that as a problem, they both need to change.