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Ethics Often Sidestepped in 'Citizen Legislatures'

National Perspective | POLITICS

March 04, 1999|ROBERT L. JACKSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — A Maryland state senator, Larry Young, was expelled from office last year for allegedly hiding payments of $57,000 from health care companies over which he had legislative jurisdiction. He later was indicted on bribery charges and awaits trial.

In Indiana, state legislator Sam Turpin was forced to resign after reporters discovered he had received $40,000 from a consulting firm that stood to benefit from a gambling project he had voted for.

These are not isolated incidents, according to a study by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit research institution based in Washington. The survey concludes that ethical infractions by members of state legislatures are widespread, largely because state conflict-of-interest regulations are riddled with holes.

California was one of several states that got high marks in the study, partly because it has lawmakers who are paid full-time salaries for generally working year-round on legislative matters.

But Charles Lewis, the center's executive director, believes many of the concerns broached by the report stem from the fact that 41 states have part-time "citizen legislatures," where it is common for some elected members to earn income from the companies, institutions and industries that they oversee or regulate.

Voting Usually Left Up to Members

The report noted that a New Mexico representative who sells liquor when he's not at the statehouse voted against a bill last year to close drive-up liquor windows. An Arizona lawmaker who, with his wife, owns a day care center pushed for legislation that would have narrowed the definition of child abuse and allowed day care centers to purge complaints from their files after 60 days.

Such votes were not necessarily illegal because most legislatures leave it up to individual members to decide when they should excuse themselves from voting on issues in which they have a direct or indirect personal stake.

And part-time legislatures are not necessarily subpar, some experts argue. Bruce Feustel, program manager for the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver, declared that "members who depend on much of their income from such everyday jobs as teachers, farmers and social workers often are closer to their constituents."

Lewis, however, said for many of these legislatures, ethics codes are "more loophole than law."

The center's survey asserted that, in case after case, lawmakers have written disclosure laws that seem largely designed to keep the public and the press in the dark about their personal financial activities and interests. According to the report, the legislators "have drilled truck-size loopholes into existing disclosure and conflict-of-interest rules."

Enforcement Remains a Problem

Poor enforcement is another problem, the center found. While most states do have penalties for late or deceptive filings of financial disclosure forms, few actually implement them.

California was one of only 13 states earning a high rating for largely solid, well-developed conflict-of-interest regulations. Nonetheless, the center found, some lawmakers in these states use loopholes to shield portions of their private interests and business from the public.

Among the weaknesses in California's code of ethics, the center said, lawmakers do not have to disclose business or employment information about spouses or grown children, nor must they reveal even an estimate of earnings from outside clients.

Considered among the nation's best ethics codes, the package of reforms in California was approved nearly a decade ago.

Key provisions prohibit state lawmakers, the governor and other top officials from accepting speaking fees, and require ethics education courses for legislators and registered lobbyists.

Times staff writer Mark Gladstone in Sacramento contributed to this story.

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