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PUBLIC SERVICE, PRIVATE INTEREST

For the next few weeks, the Sunday Gazette-Mail will be

 

investigating the cycle of influence in

the state Legislature - how

 

campaign contributions, lobbyist spending and personal

 

financial

interests affect legislation.

 

 

Sen. Mike Ross, D-Randolph, has a personal business interest in

 

  • even oil and gas companies.

    Ross sits on the Senate's Natural

  •  

    Resources Committee and the Energy, Industry and Mining

    Committee,

     

    which act on bills affecting the oil and gas industry.

     

     

    In 1998, Ross sponsored a bill that would have reduced taxes on oil and

     

    gas producers by $3

    million. His critics pointed out that Ross' own

     

    companies would have received tax breaks under

    his proposal.

     

     

    Ross' holdings in oil and gas point out a dilemma facing part-time

     

    legislators - how they

    balance personal finances and public

     

  • ervice.
  •  

     

    Ross says he is promoting the entire oil and gas industry, including

     

    its employees and small

    operators. He compares his role as a state

     

  • enator with an umpire's in a baseball game. "I have

    to look out for

  •  

    the interests of the whole team, not any one player," he

  • aid.
  •  

     

    An environmental lobbyist disagrees with the comparison.

     

     

    "An umpire is by definition an impartial arbitrator," said Vivian

     

    Stockman, lobbyist with the

    West Virginia Environmental Council, which

     

    has opposed some of Ross' proposals. "Any umpire

    found to have accepted

     

    money from a player should be fired."

     

     

    "If you eliminated everybody with another interest from the

     

    Legislature, you wouldn't have

    anybody left to serve," Ross

  • aid.
  •  

     

    The Center for Public Integrity, a nonpartisan, nonprofit

     

    organization based in Washington,

    released results of a study of the

     

    financial ties between legislators in all 50 states and the

    areas they

     

    regulate. The report showed that nearly half the states' disclosure

     

  • ystems failed

    to provide the public with basic information on

  •  

  • tate lawmakers' private interests.
  •  

     

    For West Virginia, center researchers analyzed financial disclosure

     

    forms filed in 1999. The

    information covered the 108 lawmakers who were

     

    in office in 1998.

     

     

    According to the study of West Virginia's legislators:

     

     

    - 19 percent sat on a committee that regulated their professional or

     

    business interest.

     

     

    - 12 percent had financial ties to businesses or organizations that

     

    lobby state government.

     

     

    - 30 percent received income from a government agency other than the

     

    Legislature.

     

     

    In addition, CPI ranked West Virginia 43rd in the nation for its

     

    financial disclosure laws for

    state legislators. Disclosure laws force

     

    public officials to tell where they get their income -

    their

     

    employers, business dealings and land holdings.

     

     

    The West Virginia ethics laws require legislators to list their

     

    employers and minimal

    investment information. CPI flunked West

     

    Virginia's law for not requiring information about

    spouse's income,

     

    real estate holdings, and positions on boards of corporations.

     

     

    The state of Washington, which ranked first in the survey, requires

     

    lawmakers to list almost

    all sources of income and financial holdings

     

    for themselves and their immediate family. For

    example, their financial

     

    disclosure forms look at both real estate and family income. This

     

    type

    of disclosure has helped uncover land deals where politicians were

     

    trying to steer public works

    projects to relatives, said Doug

     

    Ellis, spokesman with the Washington State Public

     

    Disclosure

    Commission. Ellis said public pressure helped lead to

     

    passage of tough disclosure laws.

     

     

    "Are the actions of the elected official in some way enhancing their

     

    financial position?" Ellis

  • aid.
  • "Washington citizens wanted tangible

     

    proof that public officials were working in the

    public's best

     

    interest, instead of their own."

     

     

    West Virginia ethics law does not prevent legislators with personal

     

    interests from voting on

    issues in which they have a financial stake -

     

    as long as it benefits them as part of a class,

    and not just as an

     

    individual. For example, teachers are allowed to vote on education issues.

     

     

    Another problem with West Virginia's disclosure laws is that no one

     

    checks to see if what

    lawmakers put down on their forms is actually

     

    true.

     

     

    "We're not the IRS," said Richard Alker, director of the West Virginia

     

    Ethics Commission. "We

    don't have the power to audit reports." The

     

    commission can investigate once a valid complaint

    has been filed, he

     

  • aid.
  •  

     

    Two state senators listed no income on their disclosure forms outside

     

    their legislative income

    - Sen. Martha Walker, D-Kanawha, and Sen. Walt

     

    Helmick, D-Pocahontas. Walker was on vacation

    and unavailable for

     

    comment.

     

     

    Helmick is listed as a businessman in annual directories, but he listed

     

  • o income of more than

    $5,000 on his disclosure forms for the last

  •  

    three years, outside his legislative salary of

    $15,000. Pocahontas

     

    County records for 1998 indicate that Helmick had several large loans

     

    from

    banks totaling almost $400,000. He also was part owner with Sen.

     

    Oshel Craigo and lobbyist Leff

    Moore of MCH Properties Inc., which

     

    owned and leased property in Pocahontas County.

     

     

    In a February meeting where he was trying to reduce the property taxes

     

    on the Charleston

    condominium he shares with his wife, Helmick told

     

    county officials he had "sold a million

    dollars of my own property in

     

    the last few years."

     

     

    Helmick said a long legal fight over mining rights to land he bought in

     

    the Monongahela

    National Forest kept him from seeing any of the income

     

    he earned from land sales. He also said

    he no longer has any

     

    interest in MCH Properties.

     

     

    "Everything there is truthful," Helmick said about his disclosure

     

    forms. He said the Ethics

    Commission should look at everybody's

     

    disclosure forms to ensure they are accurate.

     

     

    "I wish everybody would be audited," he

  • aid.
  • "I think you should do

     

    all of them."

     

     

    Not all legislators are in favor of additional requirements and

     

  • crutiny. Ross said existing

    disclosure requirements for financial and

  •  

    campaign finance information are cumbersome and

    invade people's

     

    privacy.

     

     

    "It's a lot of reporting, a lot of paperwork," he

  • aid.
  • "It discourages

     

    people from running for

    office."

     

     

    The director of the West Virginia Ethics Commission said the weak

     

    disclosure requirements are a

    blemish on an otherwise strong state

     

    ethics law.

     

     

    "The public disclosure requirements are not as effective as they

     

    could or should be," Alker

  • aid.
  •  

     

    To contact staff writer Scott Finn, use e-mail or call 357-4323.

     

     


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