Study finds legislative conflicts of interest

State lawmakers mix personal, public work

May 21, 2000

NEW YORK - Across the nation, thousands of state legislators are mixing personal and government business, despite conflict-of-interest and disclosure laws that discourage it, according to a study released today.

The Center for Public Integrity found that at least one in five legislators help regulate their own business or professional interests, have financial ties to organizations that lobby state government, and might receive income from agencies they oversee.

"You'd better watch these people very closely. Not all of them are working for the public interest. Some of them are feathering their own nests," said Charles Lewis, the center's director. "I don't think we were prepared for the unabashed audacity of these people to do personal business along with what they conceive to be their constituents' business."

Many legislators, most of them part-timers, see no conflict between the jobs they do to make a living and the work they do in the statehouse. They say their personal interests don't affect their votes.

"We've got pharmacists who pass pharmacy bills, farmers who pass agriculture bills and lawyers who pass law bills," Alabama Rep. John Rogers told the center. "I don't see it cause any conflicts."

The center said that Rogers, director of minority affairs at the University of Alabama-Birmingham, sponsored a bill providing $30 million in bonds to renovate a university hall. He did not make public his job in annual financial disclosures filed with the state, as required.

The center - nonprofit and nonpartisan - analyzed the financial disclosures of more than 5,700 lawmakers from last year, the most recent year available. Researchers also read news accounts and talked with legislators, political observers, and government and business officials.

The center found that, on average:

One in four legislators sat on a statehouse committee that regulated that lawmaker's professional or business interest.

At least 18 percent had financial ties to businesses or organizations that lobby state government.

Nearly one in four received income from another government agency, often from agencies that the legislature funds.

The center concluded that, because of weak laws and loopholes, the potential for conflicts might be greater. Three states - Idaho, Michigan and Vermont - do not require lawmakers to reveal private financial interests.

States generally bar conflicts of interest but vary in how they define and handle them. The survey did not address how, nor how many legislators had been punished for conflicts of interest.

Alan Rosenthal, a professor at Rutgers University's Eagleton Institute of Politics, questioned whether the study showed anything wrong.

State governments are built on citizen-legislators, he said, and state policy depends on their knowledge, he said."This is where people have interests, and where they also have some competence. This is where they can make a contribution," Rosenthal said.

Conflicts of interest are a real concern, but it's unfair to suggest that lawmakers are seeking personal gain solely because they have personal financial interests, he said.

Others, including political science Professor G. Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Millersville University in Pennsylvania, believe that the public needs to know more about the potential of the conflicts.

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