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Legislator’s work for a union creates at least the appearance of a conflict

Once again a legislator’s outside work has raised at least the appearance of a conflict of interest. This time it’s Erie County Legislator Patrick B. Burke, who co-sponsored a resolution supporting minimum nurse staffing ratios in acute care facilities and nursing homes. At some point after that he became a consultant for the Communication Workers of America, which represents nurses.

Burke pulled his name as a co-sponsor and recused himself when the County Legislature approved the measure earlier this month. But for at least a short period he was consulting for the CWA while participating in committee hearings on the matter.

The question of whether he did anything wrong will be determined by the county’s Board of Ethics.

The Buffalo Democrat unsurprisingly finds himself under fire from Majority Leader Joseph C. Lorigo, C-West Seneca.

Burke pointed out that he agreed to co-sponsor the resolution before he was asked to do consulting work with the CWA, and that his CWA work is related to membership engagement and not nurse staffing issues. Burke went on to explain that the union does not do business with Erie County. However, even though he did not believe he had a conflict of interest, he abstained from voting on the nurse staffing proposal to avoid any appearance of impropriety.

Lorigo still thinks something is wrong with this picture. It is, indeed, a bit blurry, although Lorigo’s exclamation that “at this point, I’m shocked” and “this is Albany-style stuff” is a bit over the top.

The controversy is nowhere near the level of corruption in Albany, where a parade of legislators has been convicted of felonies, but it points to the difficulty in separating outside work from legislative responsibilities.

Jeremy C. Toth, an assistant county attorney who also serves as a legal adviser for the county’s Board of Ethics, indicated that he did not think there was a conflict of interest, but if there was, Burke took the proper action in recusing himself.

While Burke did wash his hands of the resolution, it wasn’t until the day of the vote, and it’s unclear exactly how much involvement he had with the resolution before that point.

Lorigo and Burke both look forward to a decision by the Board of Ethics. While that may end this mini-controversy, it is a reminder of the need to completely separate legislative business from outside work.