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MARTA close to resolving conflict issue over senator’s job
No vote has been taken, but MARTA appears to be close to signing off on state Sen. Doug Stoner‘s employment by a key contractor.
The transit agency’s ethics code bars it from “entering” into any contract that benefits a public employee, a definition that includes state legislators. PBS&J, part of the joint venture that serves as MARTA’s general engineering consultant, asked for a waiver after hiring Stoner, a member of the Legislature’s MARTA Oversight Committee, in February.
“Under the terms of MARTA’s Code of Ethics, it is a conflict for the Authority to contract with PBS&J while a public employee has an interest in this entity,” chief counsel Elizabeth M. O’Neill said in an Oct. 29 memo.
However, several MARTA board members say they do not believe the code applies because the agency “entered” into the PBS&J contract in 2007, before Stoner got the job. They say the code would not apply until MARTA decides whether to renew the contract next year.
MARTA will pay as much as $45 million over three years to PBS&J and the other two firms serving as its general engineering consultant. Doug Hooker, a company vice president, said PBS&J would “re-evaluate” its relationship with Stoner if it does not get the waiver.
Stoner works on marketing PBS&J’s wastewater and utility services, not the MARTA contract, officials say. Officials have asked PBS&J to create an ethical firewall that would ensure the senator has no personal involvement or financial gain from the firm’s MARTA work.
Some board members say they are reluctant to grant a waiver but would like to clarify how the code defines a conflict of interest.
“I have a philosophical concern about waivers because I think that there’s a trap, anywhere you go with it you can get yourself into problems,” board member George Glaze said at a meeting earlier this month. “I don’t want us to be in a position to appear we are amending it for a specific occasion.”
O’Neill acknowledged the ethics code is ambiguous on the PBS&J case. At the MARTA board’s direction, she is working with local universities to study best practices nationwide and recommend possible revisions to the code.
MARTA has granted a waiver from its ethics code once before, when the law firm of Holland & Knight became its Washington lobbyist in 2008. O’Neill’s memo describes the waiver and the requirement that Holland & Knight create a similar firewall between the lobbying contract and then-state Sen. Kasim Reed, a partner in the firm.
O’Neill’s memo notes seven other instances since 1977 when MARTA considered waivers over potential conflicts of interest. All were denied.
MARTA’s ethics committee discussed another waiver request this year as it pondered a pending contract with Edelman Public Relations, which employs the daughter of MARTA board member Barbara Babbit Kaufman. Edelman withdrew from consideration before a decision was made.