Posted: Feb. 19, 2011
CURIOUSER AND CURIOUSER
By Celia Cohen
Chip Flowers, who was a lawyer before he was elected the state treasurer, has been posting news about the treasurer's office on his law firm's Web site. It would seem to be a curious place for it.
Elected officials are supposed to keep their public lives and private interests separate, so they can avoid conflicts or an appearance of trading on their office for their own benefit.
Mix-and-match does not pass muster. This is apparent from looking at the abundance of caution shown by Matt Denn, the lieutenant governor, who is also a lawyer.
Denn, a Democrat, was not practicing law when he was elected in 2008, but he had solid motivation to take it up on the side. Although he was ascending politically from his last post as insurance commissioner, he was descending financially. Going from an office that was full time to one considered part time, his annual paycheck was dropping from $105,350 to $76,250.
Before taking his oath as lieutenant governor, Denn went to the Public Integrity Commission, the arbiter of governmental ethics, for advice about what to do.
The Public Integrity Commission told him he could practice law, as long as he stuck to federal court and kept out of state court. He also had to treat being lieutenant governor virtually as a secret identity when he went about his legal work. Something like Superman and Clark Kent.
"You also will not have your state position on the firm's letterhead, etc., to avoid concerns about even appearing to use public office to attract clients for yourself or the firm," wrote the Public Integrity Commission in an advisory opinion issued Jan. 9, 2009.
About two months later, Denn joined the Bifferato law firm. It is so low-key that his profile on the firm's Web site does not even mention he is the lieutenant governor.
This is not the approach on the Web site for the Flowers Counsel Group, where Flowers is listed as the president and managing member and where he practiced law before he was elected state treasurer as a Democrat in 2010.
Not only does the Web site carry news about the state treasurer -- "Flowers Sworn In As Delaware State Treasurer" -- the description of the firm also makes the connection clear.
"Founded in 2006 by the Honorable Chipman L. Flowers Jr., Esq., Delaware state treasurer . . ."
Flowers was not available to explain the Web site references to his state office. Larry Nagengast, an adviser to Flowers, was available Friday but hardly to explain. In a telephone interview notable for its brevity, Nagengast did not even take a question before he said, "No comment."
Shortly afterwards, however, a notice was added to the Web site: "The Flowers Counsel Group LLC maintains the highest ethical standards consistent with our professional obligations. As such, due to the election of our Firm's founder to public office, the firm does not represent clients that engage in business with the Delaware State Treasury."
In addition, Flowers recently arranged to go before the Public Integrity Commission at its meeting March 17 to discuss outside employment, according to Janet Wright, the commission counsel.
Meanwhile, questions about Flowers' status with the law firm will have to go begging. Is he practicing law now? Is he drawing compensation from the firm?
Not that Flowers has shown much angst about his personal finances. He announced he would give away all but a dollar of his state salary, $110,050 for the year, to the United Way to create two fellowships in the treasurer's office. He also largely self-financed his candidacy with personal loans to his campaign, which still owed him $260,000, as of the last finance report at the end of 2010.
So there are questions. It might even be nice to know if Flowers has a favorite flower. Mum?