Frequently asked questions

Charles Lewis answers questions about the Center's recent project and the more general issue of ethics in state legislatures today.

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Q: Why should the public care about the private financial interests of state lawmakers?

A: The public should care about the private financial interests of state lawmakers because what they don't know can hurt them. Lawmakers hold our lives in their hands, voting and making decisions every day concerning our pocketbooks, health issues, telecom issues - you name it and decisions are being made about every possible thing that affects our lives. If the public doesn't have enough information, then they are in the dark about the alliances legislators have with interests that are not in the public interest. Many have jobs on the side, interests on the side that could taint their decision-making ability. And the fact is that we know more about our toasters than we do our politicians, even though sometimes we get burned by both.

Q: How does the Center define a conflict of interest?

A: A conflict of interest happens when a lawmaker takes action to benefit a personal financial interest that might not be the same as the broad public interest. It's when legislators do the public's business and their personal business simultaneously while in office. Are they working in the public interest? If they are benefiting financially from their public actions as lawmakers, chances are it is a conflict.

Q: What is the difference between a potential conflict of interest and an actual conflict of interest?

A: There is nothing inherently wrong with being a state legislator who has outside economic interests. A potential conflict of interest exists when a lawmaker sits on a committee affecting a financial interest, makes money from state or local government besides the legislature, or has financial ties to interests that lobby the statehouse. Simply put, the difference between a potential conflict of interest and an actual conflict of interest is what the lawmaker does at the statehouse to benefit that financial interest.

And then, frequently there are things known as the "appearance of a conflict of interest." It may not be technically illegal and an outright conflict of interest; they haven't done anything to increase their financial position, but the mere juxtaposition of their own background and their own personal potential interest and their position of public trust looks like they might benefit. That's the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Q: But you say that many of the conflicts mentioned in this report are not illegal, right?

A: Of the 60-plus investigations the Center for Public Integrity has done in the last 10 years, most have been about instances of legal corruption, and this study is no different. Because the laws are written by - guess who - state legislators, of course none of this is going to be illegal. It's only illegal if they write a statute and make it illegal.

At the federal level, in the Executive Branch, anyone who self-deals and makes public decisions related to money they receive from some outside party can be prosecuted. When it comes to conflicts of interest and self-dealing, these guys make the U.S. Congress look like kindergarten. Conflicts of interest have become routine - they are part of "business as usual" at our statehouses. And for the most part, the media and the public have given lawmakers a pass, not watching them closely - and it's time somebody watched.

Q: Are you criticizing citizen, part-time, legislatures?

A: At the Center for Public Integrity we don't take stands on public policy matters. That's not what we do here. We are an in-depth, fact-finding group. If the American people or certain states want citizen legislatures, then that is their business. We're noting that if you do that, you better make sure you have controls in place and disclosure in place ensuring that people wearing more than one hat do their job properly. And what we've found is, that's not the case.

Q: What is the importance of disclosure?

A: State lawmakers are important people. They need to be held accountable. They are major-league politicians with minor-league systems of ethics. Sunshine is the best disinfectant everywhere, including in state legislatures. You cannot know too much about your public servants.

We knew that it would probably be quite stunning when we looked in legislatures, but I don't think anyone thought we would find as much self-dealing and conflict-of-interest situations as we did. And it makes us look twice outside the Beltway, around the heartland, and realize that some of the most outrageous corruption in politics today is not just happening in Washington, it's happening in states all across America.

It's time the citizens and the media in the states paid a little more attention to the state lawmakers. Legislators are dealing with multi-billion dollar budgets and issues that affect our daily lives and they have become more important in some ways than members of Congress. It's time we paid them the kind of scrutiny they deserve.

The fundamental reality for a democracy is information for the people. We have this quaint notion that we have a government of the people, by the people and for the people. The people can only be informed if they know the truth and actually have information. The fact of the matter is that in most cases, people around the nation are treated like mushrooms: keep 'em in the dark and cover 'em with manure. They don't get information about these lawmakers. They don't know what legislators' investments are and if there is a problem, it's never prosecuted. And so, the solution is very simple: increase disclosure across the board. There is virtually no state we found that could not have better or improved disclosure.

And the other issue is, if there are actually going to be conflict of interest laws - which are generally a good idea in civilized society - they should actually be enforced. Put people in jail, prosecute them. We saw no great will to prosecute lawmakers too much, really in any state, when there was a problem. And so, it's very simple: have basic laws that are fair and reasonable laws, that protect the public interest and enforce those laws. Part of that whole enforcement process includes information to the voters and the public about those lawmakers.

Q: What are the solutions to the problem?

A: The Center is not an advocacy organization, and neither endorses nor opposes legislation. Our role is to provide the public with the facts, and let them use that information to make more informed decisions about their government. In an effort to connect you with organizations that do propose solutions, our researchers have gathered together groups that have studied conflicts of interest and ethics laws in the states:

Center for Governmental Studies 
President: Robert Stern 
Telephone: (310) 470-6590 
Web site: www.cgs.org

Council of State Governments 
Executive director: Dan Sprague 
Telephone: (859) 244-8000 
Web site: www.statesnews.org

Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University 
Director: Ruth B. Mandel 
Telephone: (732) 932-9384 
Web site: www.rci.rutgers.edu/~eagleton

Michigan Law Revision Commission 
In 1998, the Michigan legislature commissioned a comprehensive report analyzing state ethics laws nationwide and proposed a model ethics law. It may be accessed at the following Web address: www.milegislativecouncil.org/mlrc/1998/ethics.html

National Conference of State Legislatures: Center for Ethics in Government and Advocacy 
Director: Peggy Kerns 
Telephone: 303-830-2200 
Web site: Under construction

Q: What is the scope of this project? What did it take to put it together?

A: This is the result of an unprecedented investigation. The first time anyone in U.S. history has ever looked at conflicts of interests in all 50 state legislatures. It involves phone calls and letters to every state legislator in America. It involves a report about conflict situations in every state in the nation. It involves compiling financial disclosure information for every lawmaker in the 47 states that have disclosure into a 54,000-plus record database, and then putting the forms in their original state up on the Web. It's the result of approximately 10 people working for well over two years. The reason we know what we know is, unlike most everyone in the United States from political scientist to journalists, we've actually had our hands on the data and read the data and we've attempted to contact every state lawmaker in America - not that they all wanted to talk to us, or did talk to us. That's how we know what we know.

The project could not have been attempted or completed without the generous funding of several foundations: the Carnegie Corporation of New York, Deer Creek Foundation, Ford Foundation, Joyce Foundation, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Alida R. Messinger, and the Open Society Institute.

Q: How did you choose the examples you did in the states?

A: The Center had a team of reporters that used the database as a starting point for examining conflicts of interest examples in each state legislature. As a result, the stories in each state are anecdotal, and are not necessarily the most egregious conflict or potential conflict in each state. In effect, the Center created a "snapshot" of the different kinds of conflicts of interest that may occur in state legislatures across the country.

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