The stink of corruption unearthed by the excesses of convicted felon Meg Scott Phipps may soon dissipate harmlessly into the atmosphere. Caught in her own web of deceit, the former agriculture commissioner could not in the end escape the bags of cash and other damning evidence offered up by her accomplices. The scandal that brought down Phipps will deter others from following her crooked path, say the bromide pushers.

But it doesn’t take much to smell the same gases emanating routinely from the halls of power in North Carolina these days. Smithfield Public Works director Fred Hill was fired last April after it was discovered that he’d awarded his own equipment-rental company a lucrative city contract without seeking bids. Congressman Frank Ballance faces federal and state probes into the activities of his state-funded John Hyman Foundation, which doled out grants to organizations run by family members, Hyman board members and Ballance campaign contributors. Questions have recently surfaced about a proposed state prison in Greene County–and the relationship between the landowner and two Correction Department officials who helped orchestrate the deal.

Whether through stupidity, carelessness or deliberate malfeasance, the perpetrators in question flagrantly broke the rules–campaign finance laws, in the case of Phipps, or conflict-of-interest restrictions, or reporting requirements. But such black-and-white violations of the public trust are born and nurtured in the murky gray zones, where the rules of the game allow conflicts of interest to flourish without sanction.

The most blatant examples can be found in the elections process. It’s no great revelation that campaign contributions yield both access and results; as with advertising, if it didn’t work, people wouldn’t bother to invest. Denying that campaign contributions have anything to do with decision-making has become a ritual among the elected set, like a tired joke told by washed-up comedians. But the rules dictate that denials must be made even as patronage is delivered, and so we have state legislators declaring that the generosity of pork producers over the years has made no difference in their votes to stymie meaningful efforts to control hog waste. Or Mecklenburg County Sen. Robert Pittenger, who disclaimed any relationship between the unusual annexation bill he helped push through the legislature in June and the primary beneficiaries of the deal, developers who have business ties to Pittenger and donated handsomely to his campaign.

In case anyone was wondering just how far the joke can go, Chief Justice I. Beverly Lake and his colleagues on the state Supreme Court have recently been exploring uncharted territory. This year, Lake & Co. rewrote the code of conduct that governs how judges can wage election campaigns. Among the new regulations, judges can now hit up lawyers directly for campaign contributions instead of having to go through a fund-raising committee. Lawyers already donate about 70 percent of the money in judicial races, and that figure will likely increase if the new rule sticks. Imagine lawyers who have cases pending in Lake’s court getting a solicitation from the esteemed Chief Justice. How many would risk saying no?

Naturally, Lake says that he and his colleagues are above letting rejections get in the way of their impeccably fair and impartial considerations. North Carolina judges, after all, exist on a higher moral and intellectual plane than the rest of humanity, a point Lake made earlier this year when he said the state’s system of death penalty review is “as accomplished as any human endeavor.”

Lake did get one thing right: In defending the rule change, he noted that the current system of funneling contributions through a committee is a “facade.” In other words, judges are well aware of who gave and who didn’t. “You really don’t remove yourself much when you set up a committee and have someone ask for you,” he said.

As if to illustrate the point, the Supreme Court is currently embroiled in its own campaign contribution controversy. In May, Justice Mark Martin voted to reject an appeal by Attorney General Roy Cooper in a slander lawsuit brought by Raleigh lawyer Gene Boyce, who over the years had added $800 to Martin’s coffers. No matter though, since Martin exonerated himself of any wrongdoing: He and the other three justices who ruled on the appeal (the remaining three recused themselves without explanation) issued an order in October clearing him of a conflict of interest. State ethics rules did not require a recusal, the order said.

Lest the slander fight seem one-sided, however, Cooper had his own allies in key positions. Larry Leake, chairman of the State Board of Elections, gave Cooper $3,200 for his 2000 campaign and joined a board vote in the AG’s favor. State Court of Appeals Judge Martha Geer, who also voted in favor of Cooper when the case reached her court, donated a modest $250 to his campaign.

When questioned about the appearance of a conflict, Leake told The N&O that he saw no problem with participating in the vote. “Whether there’s a conflict of interest is in the eyes of the beholder,” Leake said. “I felt none.”

And that’s about all the ethics rules require of the Leakes and the Martins and the Pittengers who populate state and local government, unless an elected official stands to pocket directly from a particular decision. When it comes to a conflict of interest, if they say it ain’t so, it ain’t so.

That’s why Chapel Hill Town Council candidate Dianne Bachman was able to state with a straight face that her job as a UNC project manager would have no bearing on her votes about issues concerning the university, among the most contentious faced by the town. Her job had been restructured to ensure she wouldn’t be voting on any project in which she was actively involved, she said, as though that resolved the issue. And instead of vowing to recuse herself in crucial votes, she insisted that she would be able to tell her employer to buzz off.

Simply being employed by UNC, the dominant player in town, should not automatically exclude someone from running for council. But Bachman’s bland assurances rang hollow. So did deposed Cary Mayor Glen Lang’s defensive reaction when fellow council members raised questions about a vote he’d cast last year that benefited a developer whose son was partners in his business. Durham Mayor Bill Bell voted several weeks ago to award a city contract to Mutual Community Savings Bank even though he chairs the company’s board of directors, though he at least had the courtesy to admit that he’d “goofed” after his glaring conflict of interest hit the papers.

Some elected officials see why such conflicts–whether perceived or real–undermine public confidence in government. State Sen. Eric Reeves of Raleigh announced he would abstain from any involvement in the bidding to run North Carolina’s Medicaid program, citing his father’s previous employment with one of the contending firms, EDS. In September, Raleigh Mayor Charles Meeker recused himself from the vote to award a design contract to a company with which his law firm had worked. And Durham Human Relations Commission chairman Harvey McMurray says his agency should no longer solicit contributions from institutions it may be required to investigate.

Unfortunately, the handful of politicians who bother to address such conflicts of interest up front look increasingly like anachronisms. A cynical electorate weaned on the shameless influence of money in politics has come to accept that politically connected companies like Halliburton will land billion-dollar no-bid contracts The sensational self-dealings of Wall Street stock analysts and corporate fraud merchants make even Phipps seem like a small time shoplifter. In that climate, it’s hard to generate much public outrage over an annexation bill.

Tightening the ethics rules on recusal might help, but it wouldn’t solve the problem. If politicians recused themselves every time an issue reached them that involved a friend or campaign contributor, very little business would get done. That’s especially true in smaller communities where politics, business and personal relationships invariably overlap. A better answer lies in requiring full public disclosure of possible conflicts of interest before votes are cast, which is the ethical obligation of every elected official anyway. A fully informed public can then decide for itself whether officials are acting appropriately.

At that point, though, one circles back to the question of who decides what constitutes a potential conflict of interest. If it’s I. Beverly Lake or some other henhouse-guarding fox, we’d end up right back where we started. EndBlock