New Hospital Exec Job of N.J. Health Commissioner's Spouse Creates Conflict of Interest

Source: NJ
Former Christie administration Chief of Staff Kevin O’Dowd’s move to become senior executive vice president and chief administrative officer for Cooper University Health Care has prompted state Health Commissioner Mary E. O’Dowd, who is his wife, to order that she be screened from hearing about issues involving Cooper.
“It’s a very, very tenuous situation,” said William Schluter, a former longtime member of the State Ethics Commission and a state senator. He noted that nearly everything that senior hospital executives do in their jobs is influenced by state regulations (and) expects second-guessing in the media and by elected officials as the state handles issues affecting Cooper.
Mary O’Dowd’s sent a letter to the ethics commission and her chief of staff Ruth Charbonneau telling Charbonneau to ensure that the commissioner doesn’t receive any communications “on any matters directly affecting The Cooper Health System…(B)ecause I may be seen to have a conflict of interest…I am delegating all responsibility and authority for handling any such matters” to Charbonneau, she wrote…
At Cooper, Kevin O’Dowd will be responsible for “business and organizational development,” including the system’s relationships with MD Anderson and AmeriHealth New Jersey, according to Cooper’s announcement of his hiring. He will also oversee marketing, human resources, compliance oversight, and corporate real estate and development…Prior to taking the Cooper position, Kevin O’Dowd had been nominated by Christie to be the next attorney general, but his nomination became bogged down over questions surrounding the governor’s office’s handling of the controversial closure of a George Washington Bridge ramp in Fort Lee.

The question that the O’Dowds will have to face is whether they can overcome even the perception of a conflict of interest when their jobs so pervasively present opportunities for such a situation.

Seton Hall Law Professor Michael P. Ambrosio said questions about conflicts of interest will be inevitable for the health commissioner, noted that she will have to avoid the “appearance of impropriety” – a legal standard for a conflict of interest for public officials. He said that Mary O’Dowd will have to be sensitive about state decisions that don’t directly involve Cooper – such as decisions that affect Cooper’s rival hospitals, like Lourdes Health System and the Virtua system. Whether it will be appropriate to recuse herself on issues facing hospitals other than Cooper should be handled on a case-by-case basis, depending on the specific facts involved.
As to what the O’Dowds will be able to discuss in private, Ambrosio noted that couples in other professions have long had to deal with similar issues. For example, lawyers who work for firms on opposite sides of a lawsuit know they have an obligation not to disclose to each other information about the case.
If concerns are raised about the commissioner’s work, they would likely be directed to the ethics commission. Schluter and other former commissioners have said the commission’s independence was harmed by Christie’s move to replace its executive director.

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