Suddenly, Ben Stein cares about conflicts of interest
Stein's answer: Yes. Parsons, the former chairman of Time Warner (TWX) (which, as Stein notes, publishes Fortune, and which also owns DailyFinance parent AOL), is guilty of scrambling his obligations by simultaneously serving as chairman of Citigroup (C) and a senior adviser to Providence Equity Partners, a client of Citigroup's.
Even though Parsons has vowed to recuse himself from decisions involving Citi, Stein wonders, "How can any official of Citi possibly go against a deal in which his boss is involved? What foolhardy Citi officer at Citi would turn down a deal offered by a company in which his boss has an interest?" (Sorry, no link, the article's not online yet.)
Now for the irony part: Stein recently ran into some conflict-of-interest problems of his own in his capacity as a New York Times columnist, wherein he was writing about finance and economics while working on the side as a paid pitchman for FreeScore.com, a credit-report site. Stein acknowledges this in his Fortune column, while also minimizing it and fudging the details:
Recently, your humble servant was accused by various bloggers of conflict of interest for doing ads for a company that sells instant access to one's credit scores while at the same time writing about federal fiscal and monetary policy. To me, this was like accusing a movie critic of conflict of interest for advertising popcorn.For the record, while Stein was certainly called out by "various bloggers" -- most notably, my former colleague Felix Salmon -- it hardly stopped there, as an unwitting Fortune reader might conclude. In fact, the Times itself decided Stein's advertising work represented a conflict, one too substantial to ignore. When the paper dropped his column, a spokeswoman explained, "[W]e decided that being a commercial spokesman for FreeScore while writing his column wouldn't be appropriate."