When Leutheuser discussed the bill before the House Committee on Regulatory Reform, the committee’s vice chair at the time, Republican Rep. Ken Yonker, asked why taxpayers should pay for such industry-specific training.
Leutheuser declined to comment for this story, but video from the May 18, 2016, hearing shows Leutheuser shrugging, unable to answer why taxpayers should pay to train his auto dealers.
“Would you take my industry up so I don’t have to pay for mine, too?” Yonker said with a smile during the hearing.
But, as first reported by Bridge Magazine and the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, he had already done so. In 2013, Yonker, founder and then-owner of Yonker's Landscaping Inc., introduced a bill to eliminate certification requirements and fees for landscape architects.The bill died in committee.
A later version of Leutheuser’s bill ultimately passed — stripped of the state-funded training for car dealers.
“Eric was trying to have the taxpayers give him a benefit, public money to pay for their licensing and training. I just thought that was ludicrous,” Yonker said in a recent phone interview. “What I was doing was repealing an unnecessary regulation that was being a burden on the industry.”
Yonker, who today works as a drainage commissioner in the same district he represented in the House from 2010 to 2017, said Leutheuser was the only representative who attempted to benefit from his position as a lawmaker while Yonker was in office.
“We have checks and balances in place. I don’t think it’s so hard to figure out what’s a conflict of interest and what’s not,” he said. “To go out there and start making felonies out of that is absolutely ridiculous.”
And, he added, he’s never heard from constituents about such conflicts.
“It is more of an internal concern than it is a public concern. People don’t even follow their representatives close enough to know if they would be doing anything like that,” he said, referring to members voting for self-enrichment. “It is more those that are politically involved that would pick up on that.”
Michigan isn’t the only state dealing with conflicts of interest among legislators. In December, the Center for Public Integrity and The Associated Press published “Conflicted Interests,” an investigation that analyzed the disclosure reports from 6,933 lawmakers nationwide and found numerous examples of state lawmakers around the country who have introduced and supported legislation that directly and indirectly helped their own businesses, their employers or their personal finances.
In nearly every state, legislators can abstain or ask to be recused from voting on legislation if they have a conflict — and many states require them to step aside for votes, if not discussion, on the bills. But Oregon and Utah require lawmakers to vote if they are present, regardless of any potential conflicts of interest, out of concern that frequent abstentions would keep their chambers from working properly.
Michigan is considering adding disclosures that would make the information about possible conflicts more visible to the public.
Democratic Sen. Steve Bieda introduced a bill in January 2017 that would require elected officials to file yearly financial disclosures but the bill has not gained much traction.
LaGrand, who supports the concept of adding a disclosure requirement, explained that lawmakers often rely on staffers to identify conflicts and flag them for their bosses because of the sheer volume of bills. But if Michigan required lawmakers to file financial disclosures every year, these conflicts of interests would be more obvious.
“The more we can shed light on this, and the more we can get money out of politics, the better our democracy is going to be,” LaGrand said.“If I don’t want to be honest about my finances, I shouldn’t run for office.”
Data reporter Pratheek Rebala contributed.
This article was co-published in Governing and an abridged version was published by The Detroit News.
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