Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Conflict in the Court of Public Opinion – A “Congruence of Interests”?

We've covered several stories about general public attention on alleged conflicts (which may or not, in practice, pose any ethical or professional responsibility issues) [Example]. Here's another interesting one in the news: "One Law Firm On Both Sides of Controversy Over Alexandria Waterfront: McGuireWoods defends city in zoning change as well as developers who seek to benefit from it." --
  • "Lawyers at McGuireWoods are on both sides of the controversy over the waterfront, defending Alexandria taxpayers in court while seeking approval from city officials on behalf of three separate developers at the same time. Legal experts say that's not a conflict of interest, but neighborhood residents say it leaves the impression that city officials are in bed with developers. Critics say the city should have considered hiring a firm that does not regularly appear before city leaders seeking zoning approvals."
  • "In May 2012, Alexandria City Attorney James Banks signed a conflict waiver from McGuireWoods. Banks, who is a former partner at the firm, declined to be interviewed for this story although he issued a written response to questions. City officials have denied a Freedom of Information Act request for a copy of the conflict waiver."
  • "Critics of the waterfront plan say they are concerned about the appearance of impropriety. They say it looks bad for Banks to hire the firm where he was once employed, especially because that firm is now representing a trio of developers who seek to benefit financially from the zoning change that allows for increased density and overturns the longstanding ban on hotels. Some say the city should not have signed the conflict waivers. Others say they are concerned about how city officials will respond to permit applications from a firm on the city's payroll."
  • "Legal experts say a conflict of interest would exist if the developers and the city government had different interests. But because the City Council members adopted the zoning change allowing hotels and increasing the density, the city's corporate interest is in developing the waterfront. 'There is a congruence of interests right now,' said Michael Kraus, law professor at George Mason University. 'That is to say the city believes that it is in its interests to do what the developer wants to do.'"
  • "That conflict waiver remains a mystery, one that has been denied to the public because city officials have declined to make it available. Legal experts say it might be a document waiving a potential conflict that could arise in the future. Or it could draw attention to an existing conflict of interest between the law firm and city officials. A spokesman for McGuireWoods declined to comment on the issue. Banks said that these kinds of waivers are routine, although critics say the document should raise a red flag."

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