Conflict of interest, conflict of interest. Every time you turn around, somebody's talking about a conflict of interest. I'm sick of it," one City Hall regular was mumbling the other day.
It's not just the stories about a few top officials - like Joseph Yeldell and James Baldwin. It's the whole air of suspicion that the phrase evokes. And for at least 2,000 D.C. city employees who have had to file confidential financial disclosure forms, conflict of interest has become a very personalized phenomenon.
Born of the marriage between calls for open government and the impact of the Watergate revalations, increased financial disclosures by public officials have become one fashionable solution to the problem of conflict of interest and slumping confidence in government at all levels.
Like so many other things in government, however, it is proving to be one thing to talk about and another thing to do. Based on the way which the District administers its conflict of interest provisions, there seems to be reason to wonder what good it all does.
Since 1974, all D.C. city employees whose jobs involve spending or receiving city money or policy decisions have been required to file annual financial reports with the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics.
None of the reports are ever looked at or examined for authenticity or accuracy. Only one, that of Yeldell, has been opened by the board to date. In fact, the Elections Board has only one investigator and one auditor who must also monitor the legalities of all city elections as well as lobbying of city officials.
One recent conflict of interest case - in which Human Rights Director Bladwin acknowledged what he termed an unintentional violation - was disclosed by the press and involved little information that would have been disclosed in the financial report.
Elections Board lawyer Winfred Mundle concedes that the only way the beleaguered staff of the board can find out about possible violations is with voluntary help from outside. =People tell you. That's where they come into play," he says. "There's not much secret going on in the world today."
So what's the point, why bother, Mundle is asked.
"Because it still does some good," he responds. "It doesn't do the maximum, but at least it's a deterrent.
"A person will think twice about doing something wrong. If he lies on the form, that's an automatic felony conviction. So he runs that risk, if he wants to be that stupid."
The city's department of general services put security guards at the District Building and elsewhere on punishment last week by taking away the chairs at all the guard posts and ordering the men and women to stand at all times they were on duty.
On-duty shifts generally last eight hours, but the guards were to kept a 15-minute sit-down break every hour. The only persons who kept their chairs - strangely enough - were the guards at 500 First St., NW. Coincidentally, that is where the top officers of the union who represent the guards work, according to a well-paced source.
It was O.B. Cassell's idea. Cassell, the director of the dpartment's bureau of buildings management, thought it would make the men and women on the guard force look more professional. Several of the guards thought it was childist and would make them more tired. People in the mayor's ofice thougt it was ridiculous, and that's what they told Cassell after being deluged with complaints from various city agencies.
So the great stand-up order stood for only about 24 hours before Cassell rescinded it and gave the guards back their chairs.
The whole affair was the latest in a series of developments that have taken a toll on the morale of the guards at the District Building, where the security force has gone up in numbers but down in spirits since the Hanafi Muslim takover of City Hall and two other Washington buildings last March.
The city's Gambling Study Commission still hasn't made up its mind on whether to recommend that the city go into the game-of-chance business. But Council member Nadine Winter, fresh from a vacation on St. Martin's Island (where gambling is legal) has already decided it's not for her.
"I didn't gamble. I'm a Christian," Winter said. "But I saw other people who had lost money and how tormented they were."