Whitfield discounted an obvious conflict

U.S. Rep. Ed Whitfield’s work on legislation to ban the abusive practice known as “soring” in the Tennessee walking horse industry is a position we have always supported. For too many years, trainers and owners have used chemicals to blister the flesh of countless walking horses so they would achieve a high-stepping gait that makes them more competitive on show circuits. Whitfield fought to stop the abuse when others were willing to look the other way.

But the Kentucky Republican’s advocacy for an issue backed by the Humane Society of the United States also raised ethical and procedural concerns because the congressman’s wife, Connie Whitfield, became a lobbyist for the national organization in 2011.

On Thursday, the House Ethics Committee found Whitfield violated House rules because he allowed his wife to lobby his staff members on legislation he sponsored. Although the committee’s report says the members believed Whitfield’s actions were unintentional, it still condemned the congressman for allowing special privileges to his wife.

In response to the committee’s report, Whitfield said he did not realize the rules about contact between his wife and his staff changed after she registered as a Washington lobbyist.

There’s a big problem with that explanation. Whitfield, an attorney, has served in the House of Representatives since 1995. He’s not a rookie. He had an obligation to know the House rules concerning lobbyists — especially when his wife registered as a lobbyist.

To his credit, Whitfield, who is retiring at the end of this year, accepted the committee’s ruling.

Even though Whitfield and his wife are widely respected for their work on animal welfare, it’s important to remember that members of Congress shouldn’t ignore potential conflicts of interest that rise out of special treatment for spouses and close relatives.

If the issue had been something like military spending and the congressman’s wife was a lobbyist for a weapons contractor, the conversation about a conflict of interest would be different.

The stakes weren’t as serious on the issue involving equine abuse because the congressman did not receive any financial gains through the legislation and because most reasonable people recognize that it is abusive to sore walking horses. But the rules for lobbying must be followed in all scenarios. It can be a slippery slope when a member of Congress is married to a lobbyist — so the rules must be known and respected.

With 22 years in the House, Whitfield should have recognized that his wife’s status as a lobbyist was a potential problem.

Kentucky New Era

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