An incurable conflict
Disclosing a conflict of interest is a tenet of public service that goes to the very heart of transparency and trust in government officials. In fact, some governing bodies advise elected officials to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.
What does that mean? In situations where there’s no direct conflict of interest but a vote could potentially be misconstrued by the public, officials are advised to err on the side of caution and recuse themselves from pending public matters. It’s the better-safe-than-sorry approach to open government.
Mesa County Commissioner Rose Pugliese is a lawyer by trade specializing in estates and trusts. She’s being sued for legal malpractice by two separate parties for giving bad legal advice and breaching her fiduciary duty to her clients.
That, in itself, isn’t particularly noteworthy. Every lawyer has to contend with the possibility of an unsatisfied client and the case against Pugliese has yet to be fully litigated.
But the lawsuit establishes a relationship between Pugliese and the disgruntled clients that dates back to before Pugliese became a county commissioner. The Sentinel’s Greg Ruland pieced together a timeline showing that Pugliese prepared a will for Louise Ramstetter before she died in April 2009.
One of three heirs contested the will and a settlement agreement that Pugliese drafted to satisfy objections to the distribution of property was invalidated by a Mesa County District Court judge. The judge ruled that Pugliese expressed a legal opinion that led to a misunderstanding among the heirs about the purpose of the agreement.
Again, this has little to do with Pugliese’s role as a public official. But two months before the four-day probate hearing to determine if Pugliese’s advice was legally sound, Marie Ramstetter asked Mesa County commissioners to approve a $3,500 property tax reduction for the Marie Ramstetter Family Trust.
Marie Ramstetter is one of the heirs suing Pugliese for legal malpractice. She was a client of Pugliese’s law firm as recently as May 2012. Commissioners unanimously approved the tax abatement in September of last year.
A record of the Sept. 30 property tax abatement hearing doesn’t reflect that Pugliese disclosed the potential conflict of interest before she voted with John Justman and then-Commissioner Steve Acquafresca to approve the tax abatement.
So now, in addition to a lawsuit, Pugliese faces the prospect of violating a state statute requiring local government officials to disclose any personal interest they may have in a matter pending for the governing body on which they serve.
Pugliese, understandably, isn’t talking. The vote raises many questions. Ramstetter didn’t need Pugliese’s vote to get her tax abatement, so why did Pugliese vote at all?
When a public official’s personal interests conflict with his or her official duties, that official must disclose the conflict and abstain from voting. Neither happened here.