Piqué-Rubiales case: what are conflicts of interest?

Talking about conflicts of interest is very topical after learning of the agreements between Luis Rubiales, president of the Spanish Football Federation, and Barça player Gerard Piqué, in his capacity as owner of the Kosmos company, which participates in the agreements to bring the Super Cup to Saudi Arabia.

But there are also other fields where conflicts of interest are the subject of significant attention by public opinion: senior officials who make decisions that may favor people with whom they have close ties, doctors who receive benefits from the pharmaceutical industry, judges who return to the judiciary after intense activity on the front line of political life…

Luis Rubiales, president of the Royal Spanish Football Federation.
Shutterstock / lev radin

The conflict of interest is a moral figure that appears in the conduct of someone who has a duty or obligation (primary interest) that collides with an interest of a personal nature (secondary interest), which can distort their professional judgment in an unacceptable way, causing fear that justice be injured.

The problem with the agreement between Piqué and Rubiales is not that it is illegal, but the risk that the money from the commissions that are going to be pocketed (secondary interest) influences the obligatory rigor of their professional actions (primary interest), since either when choosing referees (Rubiales) or in the degree of involvement in the field of play (Piqué).

Let’s look at examples in other areas.

A judge would have a conflict of interest if he had to judge a lawsuit involving a family member. We are not saying that he is going to give an unfair sentence, but that having emotional ties with a person involved generates reasonable suspicion.

A doctor who has received donations from a pharmaceutical company has a conflict of interest because he could bias the results of an investigation in favor of the interests of the company in question. This does not mean that you will falsify a publication, but that there is a risk that potential negative results will be masked.

Confusion between two terms

It is convenient to specify very well what we are talking about. The terms and their meaning are easily confused, both in the colloquial sphere and in the media, and even in academic journals in the Spanish language, where it is often used inappropriately (perhaps due to an inadequate translation of the expression conflict of interests) The denomination conflict of interests (not interest).

Conflicts of interest refer to a different situation that occurs when there is a conflict between the interests of different physical or moral subjects. For example, two companies may have a conflict of interests when opting for a contract offered by an institution with certain conditions. In this example, the person commissioned by the institution to evaluate the suitability of the offers is the one who could have the genuine interest conflict if he had recently held a position in one of the companies competing for the contract, because there is a risk that this circumstance introduces a bias bias into his decision.

We are also interested in differentiating the authentic interest conflict of the well-known figure of bribery which, beyond a risk, directly constitutes the commission of a crime. For example, when the person responsible for the evaluation of offers receives a substantial gift in exchange for favoring one of the companies that opt ​​for the award of a contract. Another example of bribery would be a doctor receiving compensation in exchange for prescribing medicine.

How to deal with them?

It can be said that a conflict of interest is the equivalent of a temptation, which must be distinguished from its acceptance. However, there are temptations that, when ignored or consciously admitted, involve taking an excess of risk that is in itself morally unacceptable.

The ethical management of conflicts of interest in institutions must be carried out through explicit regulations and corporate supervision by their governing bodies or committees. ad hoc. To this end, several strategies are contemplated: transparency, review with authorization, incompatibilities and, finally, inhibition.

  • Transparency through public statement It is considered the golden rule when dealing with conflicts of interest. It is ethically very healthy to highlight secondary interests that could affect the soundness of professional judgment. The decisive question at this point is: would I feel comfortable if people related to my professional activity knew of my secondary interest in this matter?

  • Review of conflicts of interest for subsequent authorization by a committee is a control system that some institutions carry out. In addition to transparency and review prior to authorization, a system of incompatibilities can also be established to occupy certain managerial positions.

  • inhibition under certain circumstances is another classic measure to deal with a conflict of interest. This is the case of the voluntary withdrawal of a commission or court when a person with whom there is some special bond is going to be evaluated and who would jeopardize or suspect the fairness of the resolution.

Institutions need transparency

The debate after the leaked conversations between Rubiales and Piqué shows that the Spanish Football Federation needs to review its code of ethics, so that, at least, transparency in the management of conflicts of interest is perfected. Otherwise the shadow of suspicion generates social mistrust.

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