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February 12th, 2014

Legislator’s Position Creates Conflict Of Interest

Orange County Legislator Leigh Benton

GOSHEN - Orange County Democratic Women ("OCDW") joined the Latino Democratic Committee of Orange County ("LDCOC") in issuing a statement about the conflict of interest facing Orange County Legislator Leigh Benton. The statement objects to Mr. Benton’s continuing to serve as a County Legislator while also working for the engineering firm hired to do the overhaul of the Government Center. The statement asks him to either step down from the Legislature or from his job with the government contractor.

Mr. Benton had been actively involved in the controversy over what to do with the Government Center. He led a legislative committee which recommended the hiring of the engineering firm, Clark Patterson Lee. In addition to bidding for county contracts, Clark Patterson Lee has been a big donor to many Republican candidates, including Mr. Benton. In January 2014, Clark Patterson Lee became Mr. Benton’s new employer. The two groups agree that in a time when confidence in government is declining, it is important to find ways to restore trust in our system. They say that even the perception or appearance of a conflict of interest goes against the spirit of the ethics policies and procedures each legislator signs.

"When a Legislator takes a job with a firm that benefited from his leadership; when that job is offered just before he is re-elected; when large donations are made to his re-election campaign, there is the perception of pay to play, " said Sonia Ayala, Chair of the Latino Democratic Committee of Orange County. " Our elected officials regardless of party must live by a higher standard," she added.

Mr. Benton’s job is to drum up business with government agencies, hospitals and other potential clients in the Hudson Valley. He said he sees no conflict of interest. Orange County Democratic Women disagree. "In his position of power and influence as a Legislator, Mr. Benton may not see things the way tax payers and voters do. He has become an agent for his new employer," says Willa Freiband, President of Orange County Democratic Women.

"As a Legislator, he is supposed to be an advocate for the people. This situation sets up a scenario which can easily lead to abuse. You cannot work for two bosses and be fair to both. Whether it takes place in the halls between meetings or the elevators, conversations and influencing occur all the time. A legislator who works for a company with government contracts and whose job is to drum up business is not going to be able to separate his bosses’ interests from the interests of the people," she cautioned.

The two organizations hope others will join their call for Mr. Benton to decide which job is more important. They say that people are tired of news about corruption and abuse of power, and it is one of the reasons that voter turnout keeps shrinking. Ms. Ayala and Ms. Freiband want to see Orange County’s new administration and legislature, regardless of party, stand for the spirit of good government and provide a transparent government. They hope the consensus will be to ask Mr. Benton to step aside from one of the jobs. OCDW and LDCOC urge each County legislator and the new administration to take this opportunity to show that they stand for something better. OCDW and LDCOC ask others to join them in urging Mr. Benton to do the honorable thing and to choose which job he wants to keep - saying it would go a long way towards restoring trust.

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