This article first appeared on La Tercera on September 16, 2020.
We live in a society, we create links, we know different people who work in different areas and positions, and, therefore, being confronted with a conflict of interest may be more common than we think.
In this line, the reappearance of Pablo Longueira in the public agenda brought to mind the big scandals that exploded a few years ago and which included the illegal financing of politics and the conflicts of interest evidenced in the decision making of parliamentarians favoring companies from which they had received the money. These facts, excused in the phrase “everybody does it” or “I did nothing wrong because I thought the same as the company”, demolished the (erroneous) perception that in Chile these things did not happen.
Unfortunately, whenever we hear defenses of these cases, appealing to the fact that people voted out of conviction, they forget a small big issue: the conflict of interest, or how an opinion changes when a company finances your campaign, or there is a payment involved.
In this regard, it should be noted that today, with the modification of the figure of bribery, we should no longer encounter these problems between business and politics, since any payment received by a public official is considered bribery, without the need to prove that he/she acted in favor of the company.
In the private world, conflicts of interest also occur frequently. We have already heard about the case of the former executive president of Codelco, Nelson Pizarro, accused of allegedly exerting pressure so that the company Indak, owned by his son’s partner, was hired directly in the Salvador Division. A month later, Pizarro’s son bought a piece of land in Chicureo for $75 million, which belonged to his partner, and which he acquired at a price much lower than the market value. The CDE filed a lawsuit against the former Codelco executive since he would have used his influence in the contracting of the company linked to the son’s partner.
There is a fine line that we must face, to avoid falling into facts that may be irregular, even without looking for them, and that can generate a conflict of interest when opting for a job, making a decision, or voting for a project. For this, we must declare and report everything that could cause problems in our actions, both personal and professional, and companies have a fundamental role in managing these conflicts.
Making a decision declaring the conflict or potential conflict of interest is completely different from hiding it, since in the future if this conflict is known -and most probably it will be- there will always be the doubt of whether the decision was made for personal benefit because of the lack of transparency.
In Chile, there is the crime of incompatible negotiation, also included in the law on Criminal Liability of Legal Entities, which states that anyone who takes an interest, directly or indirectly, in a business, action, contract, operation, or management in which he/she is also involved by his/her position will be punished. This crime can be committed by public employees, arbitrators, liquidators, overseers, experts, guardians or executors, and directors or managers of corporations.
Given this, organizations should generate policies aimed at creating an ethical culture, where there is transparency and awareness of what could affect my environment, and where at the same time, there is no fear of declaring potential conflicts of interest, since, through trust, we can prevent or resolve in time any unethical situation.
The same commitment to transparency should be made by public agencies, in addition to being strict and demanding with the declaration of interests of state officials, because if society distrusts its authorities and institutions, these are weakened, leaving a fertile ground for corruption.
So, managing conflicts of interest are not difficult, but we must be clear that we all have them and/or will have them at some point, and that these must be managed (including potential conflicts), declaring them no matter how small or distant they may seem. Transparency must start with ourselves.
By Susana Sierra