Conflicts of interests: has anything changed?

Readers of the state's largest newspapers can be forgiven if they picked up Sunday's editions and wondered if they were in a time warp. Lewis Sewell, a member of the state Board of Transportation from Jacksonville, had steered $375,000 in state road improvements to projects near property in which he or his son were investors. That put the Sewells and their investing partners in position to benefit handsomely from taxpayer spending.

His ability to cast those votes shows that the law governing such obvious conflicts of interests has no teeth and needs to be changed.

How was Louis Sewell in a position to guide those public investments in land in his hometown? It's an old story. Mr. Sewell was a fundraiser for gubernatorial candidate Mike Easley in the 2000 election, helping lead an effort to raise $125,000. After taking office, Gov. Easley appointed Mr. Sewell to the Board of Transportation.

A DOT board member is a valuable ally to any politician – and a politician is a vital ally for anyone who aspires to be on the policy-making board. Mr. Sewell was to hold a fundraiser today for Democratic gubernatorial nominee Bev Perdue, but it was cancelled Tuesday.

But the current conflict of interests highlighted by reporters Dan Kane and Benjamin Niolet in the News & Observer Sunday sound like the conflicts of interests that plagued Gov. Jim Hunt's last term in office in the late 1990s. Three members of the board of transportation resigned their positions after evidence surfaced they used their office for financial gain. One resigned in 1997 after voting in favor of $3 million for a road project that ran by a golf resort in which he had interests.

Those conflicts of interests led to legislation intended to clean up the apparent pay-to-play system where campaign contributors could buy seats on the DOT board and then influence transportation projects that benefitted them. In 1999 Rep. Joanne Bowie, R-Guilford, proposed eliminating any contributor of $500 or more to a gubernatorial campaign from consideration as a DOT board member. The House rejected that idea. The Senate, whose members included Sen. Bev Perdue, D-Craven, adopted other reforms.

While board members are required by law to refrain from voting on projects that affect them financially, Mr. Sewell didn't mention his interests and voted twice for funding road improvements. Obviously the law isn't effective and needs changing.

Mr. Sewell now says he should have allowed another DOT board member to handle the projects, and said he was only thinking of the people's needs. He just wasn't thinking, his lawyer said, about the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Horsefeathers. Whenever a public official pushes a project that holds any prospect of enhancing the value of that official's personal property, it's a conflict of interests. It isn't right. It's a shame. And it ought to be against a law with teeth in it.