Watchdog Group Raps State Legislators on Ethics
By Clare Nolan, Senior Writer
When New Mexico's Senate President Manny Aragon, long a foe of private prisons, took a job last June with the Wackenhut Corrections Corp., the owner of two prisons being built in his state, even his fellow Democrats were disgusted. "Any of those issues that come before the Senate, if he were to push them one way or another, the rest of the senators would be asking themselves the question why," state senator Michael Sanchez told the Albuquerque Journal.
In Georgia last year, critics jeered when House Democratic Leader Larry Walker co-sponsored a bill protecting beer and wine wholesalers from out-of-state competition. Walker's law firm happened to represent the Georgia Beer Wholesalers Association, one of the bill's chief beneficiaries.
Neither Aragon nor Walker broke the laws of their respective states. In most states, particularly in the 41 with part-time legislatures, lawmakers often do outside work for the companies they regulate. Legislators write the rules governing their own ethical behavior, and, according to a new report by the Washington-based research group, the Center for Public Integrity, they do a poor job of it.
"Basically, it's amateur hour out there when it comes to regulating conflict-of-interest," said CPI Director Charles Lewis.
In Hidden Agendas, the report released today, CPI examines disclosure laws governing 7,400 lawmakers in 50 states.
In many cases, these statutes are among the few designed to protect the public from legislators who act solely in their own self-interest.
According to the CPI analysis, the states' disclosure rules under which lawmakers reveal their sources of outside income are riddled with loopholes "big enough to drive a truck through."
"It appears there is no genuine interest by lawmakers in telling the public where they get their money on the side," Lewis said. "They just don't want people to pay much attention."
"Public office is a public trust," the author of the report, Diane Renzulli said. "It's the responsibility of public servants to let the public know what their private interests are." Even when legislators ignore the disclosure laws that do exist, she added, "enforcement rarely happens."
In its report, CPI grades the states on their openness about lawmakers' potential conflicts.
Half the states fail.
At the bottom are Idaho, Michigan and Vermont, none of which require lawmakers to file financial disclosure reports of any kind; In these states, legislators and their families can invest in, work for or represent companies that have business before the legislature without anyone being the wiser. "We just don't know," Renzulli said.
In North Dakota, which also receives a failing grade, lawmakers are not required to disclose their primary source of income. New Hampshire does not require legislators to list income or investments in stocks.
Washington receives the highest grade, a 98. CPI criticizes the state for only one major lapse: Its lawmakers are not required to enumerate the value of earnings from clients.
CPI gave passing grades to 25 states, but it notes deficiencies in the laws of all 50. Among the report's findings:
- In 37 states, lawmakers do not have to place a dollar value on their business activities or investments;
- In 30 states, lawmakers who are accountants, lawyers and other professionals do not have to name their clients;
- In 28 states, legislators do not have to disclose the business interests of family members;
- In 19 states legislators can keep secret ownership of real estate;
- In 11 states, lawmakers do not have to name the corporations in which they are officers or directors.
In addition, the CPI report says, some states erect cumbersome roadblocks in front of anyone who wants to review lawmakers' disclosure forms.
In Maryland, Montana and North Carolina, reviewers must appear in person to read or copy documents. In North Dakota, state lawmakers' disclosure forms are spread among 53 separate offices. Seven states require reviewers to disclose information about themselves before they can see their legislator's reports.
Over the next year, CPI says it will conduct an exhaustive study of the financial activities and interests of all 7,400 state legislators.