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Ethics news in New Jersey, Utah, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Mississippi

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There’s been movement on the ethics front in at least five states since the Center released its States of Disclosure rankings back in late June. Most legislatures aren’t in session, but there are nevertheless new developments regarding ethics legislation and financial disclosure rules in New Jersey, Utah, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Mississippi.

In the wake of a corruption scandal that rocked New Jersey earlier this year, the Garden State governor’s race quickly focused on ethics reform as a critical issue. The gubernatorial candidates, Gov. Jon Corzine and former U.S. attorney Chris Christie, are each claiming the high ground.

Christie built his career running on an anti-corruption platform, and outwardly blames Corzine and New Jersey Democrats for allowing corruption to fester in the state. But when Christie unveiled his 10-point ethics plan, Corzine called it a rehash of his own proposal. Christie said the governor never made ethics reform a priority, but Corzine blamed the lack of action on the legislature’s preoccupation with passing a budget, pledging to push reform legislation through after the election.

According to our States of Disclosure project, New Jersey ranks 11th for legislative financial disclosure, lacking in business client information and requirements for descriptions of employers, officer and directorship entities, and investments. Chistie’s ethics proposal includes “a new, detailed annual disclosure form of all public officials” that would mirror federal disclosure requirements. During the campaign, Christie acknowledged his own failure to disclose a $46,000 loan on his financial statement. He has since apologized for what he referred to as an “oversight” on his part.

Out West, meanwhile, Utahns for Ethical Government announced a citizens’ initiative in August that would enact a strict code of ethics, create an independent ethics commission, and set up new rules for financial disclosure. As it stands now, legislators in Utah are only required to file a list of companies they are associated with that “may result in a conflict of interest.”

The initiative calls for a much more detailed disclosure form, which would require data on outside income, positions as officers or directors, and real property ownership information. The proposals also would establish an independent ethics commission to receive disclosure statements, investigate and process ethics complaints, and issue advisory opinions.

There’s no guarantee of clear sailing for the initiative; Utah has a fairly high standard for placing a citizen’s initiative on the ballot. But Utahns for Ethical Government has filed its petition with Lt. Governor Greg Bell and has scheduled hearings throughout September.

Utah sits at 47th in the States of Disclosure rankings, above only Idaho, Michigan, and Vermont, which have no disclosure laws at all.

In West Virginia, another low-ranking state, at number 44, House Minority Leader Tim Armstead has announced plans to introduce tougher ethical standards next session, specifically calling for the disclosure of spousal information.

Following the release of States of Disclosure, Theresa Kirk, executive director of the state’s ethics commission, said she considered the moment “a good opportunity to look at our disclosure requirements.” On September 3, the commission discussed draft legislation that would strengthen the state’s ethics laws by requiring the disclosure of a spouse’s income, real estate, board memberships, and business interests. The legislation would also require the disclosure of in-state real estate holdings and board memberships for non-profit organizations, two categories for which West Virginia lost points on the Center’s survey.

The commission will continue to review the draft when it is scheduled to meet in October.

Wisconsin has a fairly average ranking, according to the Center’s analysis, but is one of only four states that require anyone requesting a copy of disclosure forms to leave personal information. A bill proposed earlier this year by Rep. Spencer Black would eliminate this requirement, giving the state an opportunity to post the forms online and thus enhance public accessibility.

Lawmakers in Mississippi, which emerged as the second-most improved state this year, authorized funding at the end of June to finally allow disclosure forms to be placed online. At the time of States of Disclosure’s release, the Mississippi Ethics Commission was awaiting the funding needed to implement an online system. Now that the money is available, the commission expects to have disclosure forms available on its website starting January 1, 2010.