The State Board of Education finds itself under a spotlight following recent reporting on the lobbying of some board members. The Beacon Journal and The News Outlet, a collaboration of student journalists, have pushed to the fore the troubling issue of members leveraging their public roles to advance private interests.
In the wake of the reports, Bryan Williams, an elected member and lobbyist for a building contractors’ group, resigned from the board last week, conceding — none too soon — that he may have violated state ethics laws on lobbying by elected officials. The fallout should not end with Williams. The lobbying activities of board members such as C. Todd Jones blur the lines between public and private interest and raise equally troubling issues of conflicts of interest.
Jones, appointed to the board by Gov. John Kasich, is the president and general counsel for the Association of Independent Universities and Colleges of Ohio. A registered lobbyist for the association, his job is to influence state legislation and policies in ways that are advantageous to his clients. On the school board, he sits on committees that make decisions, among other things, on achievement, gifted programs, the school budget and post-secondary education.
It is possible for a lobbyist to insulate private interest from public role. Disclosure statements, for instance, are intended to ensure a measure of transparency. Board members also can recuse themselves on specific issues. Yet with regard to Jones, the entanglements are obvious.
His clients (including a private college whose president, Mark Smith, also is a Kasich board appointee) would benefit from decisions by committees on which he sits. He has lobbied executive and legislative offices, indicating his association would work with the state superintendent in crafting rules for post-secondary education. At the same time, Jones is supposed to work for the public on the board. Where lies the first obligation? To the public or the association?
Perhaps recognizing the need for flexibility and varied experience on public boards, state lobbying laws differ for appointed board members. Still, a conflict is a conflict, whether a board member is seated by election or appointment.