NC Public Safety chief should not be working at his law firm

May 14, 2013 

When the people of North Carolina, through their governor, hire someone to serve as a Cabinet secretary at $135,000 a year, they rightly expect the office holder will devote all his or her professional energies to that job. That’s reasonable not just because of a generous salary, but because it is a high honor to hold such a post.

Kieran Shanahan, new secretary of the Department of Public Safety, runs essentially all state law enforcement agencies. In addition, Gov. Pat McCrory has asked him to travel the state and develop a school safety plan.

Shanahan, a former Raleigh City Council member, has declined, however, to get out of the Shanahan Law Group and thus is doing a little moonlighting. He says he’s out of criminal cases, but he offers advice and consultation to other clients.

No doubt Shanahan’s being careful so far as his ethics go, avoiding potential conflicts of interest and the like, but what he is doing is not fair to his department, to the governor who appointed him or to the taxpayers of North Carolina who employ him. Shanahan owes the people his full-time service, and no matter how diligent he may be, no matter how much energy he may have, his current arrangement is unacceptable.

In written responses to questions from The News & Observer, Shanahan said he filled out the secondary employment form required of state workers and it’s in his file. Fine, but as a department head he is expected to do more than meet disclosure requirements. He has a responsibility to set an example for those who work under his direction. He says he and his lawyer are deciding what to do about the fact that his law firm still bears his name, which the State Bar prohibits if a lawyer holds public office “during any substantial period.”

The agency Shanahan is charged with running has 27,000 employees. At some point, the secretary is going to have to make personnel calls that might be controversial. In fact, he’s already made one: He upheld the firing of the acting chief of the State Capitol Police for arranging moonlighting at a nightclub for officers. No advance permission had been sought.

Shanahan’s been in public life. He knows the price one pays for holding a prominent office. Though there’s no reason not to take Shanahan at his word, he understands the importance of appearances and thus the importance of eliminating any possibility that some members of the public might wonder if his public position is somehow helping his law firm. But that’s the risk he is taking.

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