GREENSBORO, NC — On the agenda of the July 18th Greensboro City Council meeting was an item to approve the awarding of the city’s health care contract to Cigna. Councilman Justin Outling intervened with official actions to stop the contract award to Cigna. The other company in the running for the contract was United Healthcare, a client of Outling’s law firm. The maneuver succeeded in sending the city’s health care business to United Healthcare.
On the day he intervened, Outling received a campaign contribution from a state registered lobbyist for United Healthcare.
Outling intervenes at council meeting to benefit his firm’s client
Prior to Outling’s intervention, the health care contract with Cigna was approved by the city manager after proposals had been reviewed by an independent consultant and multiple city departments. The choices had come down to Cigna and United Healthcare. On a five-point scale that evaluated 22 criteria, Cigna’s proposal scored 4.21 and United Healthcare’s proposal scored a 3.65. Cigna’s proposal was also $670,000 less than United Healthcare’s.
By all reasonable and objective measures, it made sense for the city to choose Cigna. The contract merely needed city council approval. Lurking in wait, however, was district 3 city council representative Justin Outling.
Outling, works for Brooks Pierce law firm which has United Healthcare as a client, a fact that Outling, who had not filed mandatory annual conflict of interest forms in years, did not reveal.
Greensboro’s city charter and ethics rules demand that elected officials publicly announce conflicts of interest on the record when a matter comes before them in which they have a direct or indirect financial interest. Failure to do so is supposed to result in forfeiture of office.
Outling did not reveal his firm’s ties to United Healthcare nor did he recuse himself. Instead, he kept quiet about United Healthcare’s business relationship with his firm and he intervened to stop the awarding of the contract to Cigna. He succeeded. He made a motion to reject the request for proposals. It was seconded by Mike Barber and approved by Mayor Nancy Vaughan, Marikay Abuzuaiter, Tony Wilkins and Nancy Hoffman.
Outling acknowledged that his maneuver would result in sending the city’s business to United Healthcare. He said the result of his motion would be that the city manager “would make arrangements for the continued provision of services to employees, which would be United Health.”
Lobbyist contributes to Outling’s campaign on the same day
Outling’s firm doesn’t just represent United Healthcare, three of its attorneys are state registered lobbyists for United Healthcare. On the day of the council meeting where Outling successfully yanked the health care contract from Cigna, he received a campaign contribution from Ed Turlington, one of those registered lobbyists for Cigna competitor United Healthcare.
It is worth noting that this contribution was made by check, not electronically or online, suggesting Outling met in person with the lobbyist.
After the cake was baked, Outling pretends to gets ethical
After the meeting at which Outling took action to stop the contract from going to Cigna — the day he received a campaign contribution from the United Healthcare lobbyist — Outling defended himself saying he is “extremely careful” about conflicts. He said this before the public knew about the campaign contribution. But Outling knew. He knew. Yet, still, he told the News & Record’s Margaret Moffett about his behavior, “I feel pretty good about this.”
Outling’s actions prompted a formal complaint with the North Carolina Bar Association, whose ethics rules explicitly prohibit attorneys who are elected officials from participating in official acts in which their firm’s clients have an interest. And there are the prohibitions against such involvement in the city charter and council ethics policy. At least three codified ethical requirements dictated that Outling should not have participated, much less intervened, in a matter involving his firm’s client.
Nonetheless, City Attorney Tom Carruthers issued an advisory opinion after Outling’s shenanigans that attempted to justify them. Carruthers readily made that opinion public. At the next city council meeting, city council voted to give its health care business to United Healthcare. This time, Outling abstained, although he failed to state why as is required by the city’s charter.
What changed between the two meetings? Carruthers wrote a second advisory opinion prior to the second meeting where Outling recused himself. Carruthers has refused to provide a copy of that second opinion, saying it is privileged communication. While state law does not demand that such records remain confidential — as demonstrated by Carruther’s willingness to make his first opinion public — it does allow such records to be kept confidential for three years. After three years, those records must be made public if requested.
City council or even Outling himself could waive the confidentiality of Carruther’s second memo. Even though doing so would be in the public interest, it seems unlikely. We’ll just have to wait three years. In the mean time, Greensboro’s district 3 is represented by a council member who either is oblivious to the ethical rules and requirements of his office, or he has no ethical compass of his own and just doesn’t care.