A conflict of interest occurs when “an individual's personal interests – family, friendships, financial, or social factors – could compromise his or her judgment, decisions, or actions in the workplace”. The conflicts of interest at issue here surround Ratliff’s leading role in recommending changes to Fire/EMS services to the Kennett Fire and Emergency Services Commission or Kennett Township. Ratliff’s first conflict was created in late 2020, when he failed to notify either the Fire Commission or Kennett Township that he and other family members were members of Longwood Fire Company. In this case, Ratliff’s relationship with members in the Fire Company meant that his recommendations would be much more likely to favor than harm Longwood. In this case, however, there is no clear financial gain for Ratliff.
Ratliff’s second and more significant conflict arose in October 2021, when he failed to notify either the Fire Commission or Kennett Township that his wife had been hired by Longwood, likely using new funding that Ratliff himself had engineered. In this case, there is a very clear financial gain for Ratliff. At the very least, this conflict makes Ratliff more likely to avoid actions that diminish wife’s prospects for continued employment.
Conflicts of interest can sometimes evolve into influence-peddling - “the use of power or influence on someone else's behalf in return for money or favors”. An example would be if the decision to hire Ratliff’s wife - and perhaps to create the position itself - was how Longwood Fire rewarded Ratliff for the monopoly he engineered for Longwood. Implicit deal-making - the nod and a wink that sadly seems to have become a staple of Pennsylvania politics- can be impossible to prove. Based on conversations with state officials, we understand that this is why the Ethics Commission needs more specific evidence of deal-making before launching an investigation based on the kind of complaint we submitted. We are actively in pursuit of this evidence.
The most common protection against the inappropriate influence that a conflict of interest can create is pre-emptive public disclosure, and, if needed, recusal. In other words, the person lets others know about a possible conflict before it can influence recommendations, and then follows their guidance as to when he or she should step aside from subsequent discussions or decisions. In Pennsylvania, public employees and elected officials who are concerned about a possible conflict of interest can seek an opinion from the Ethics Commission. They do this by submitting a request for an advisory opinion - a letter disclosing the potential conflict of a request and a request for guidance.
While such disclosures can allow the official or employee to seek permission, they cannot offer forgiveness. For example, we have clarified through discussions with officials from the Ethics Commission that an Advisory Opinion shields the employee or official from an investigation (and potential criminal prosecution) should an ethics complaint be filed in the future, but only for conduct after the advisory opinion was sought (assuming that the employee/official complied with the Commission’s recommendations). Thus, Ratliff cannot be prosecuted for his conduct after November 30 (when his letter was sent seeking an Advisory Opinion), as long as he followed the Commission’s guidance. But by seeking an opinion for his conduct after November 30, 2021, Ratliff effectively asked the Commission to render a judgment of the appropriateness of his conduct before November 30, 2021. In this case, the Advisory Opinion obtained by Ratliff simply confirmed that his conduct had been inappropriate, probably for more than a year.