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LEGISLATORS' CONFLICTS CAN CUT BOTH WAYS

Doing the right thing - or more importantly, appearing to do the right

 

thing - can be tough for

a state legislator.

 

 

Ask Sen. Martha Yeager Walker, D-Kanawha. When she became a candidate

 

for state senator in

1992, she quit her job at her husband's company,

 

Jarrett Printing, to avoid the appearance of

any conflict of interest.

 

Jarrett Printing had published materials for the Legislature for

 

more

than 50 years.

 

 

But when the West Virginia Supreme Court said quitting wasn't enough,

 

  • he had to make a choice

    - ask her husband's company to drop its

  •  

    lucrative contract with the state, or withdraw from the

    election.

     

    Walker came close to giving up her dream of becoming a state senator.

     

     

    "We decided to give up the printing job," said Walker. "One of us had

     

    to make a sacrifice."

     

     

    Last week, the Center for Public Integrity released a study of all 50

     

  • tate legislatures,

    focusing on potential conflicts of interest

  •  

    among lawmakers. West Virginia ranked 43rd in

    disclosure laws for state

     

    legislators - laws that require lawmakers to tell the public

     

    about

    their employment income and financial assets.

     

     

    The CPI study flunked West Virginia's disclosure laws for not asking

     

    for information commonly

    required by other states, such as real estate

     

    holdings, positions on corporate boards and

    spouse's income. Also, many

     

  • tates make no effort to check whether what legislators put on

    their

  •  

    disclosure forms is accurate or complete.

     

     

    Despite these loopholes in disclosure laws, CPI was able to determine

     

    that a high percentage of

    West Virginia legislators are in a position

     

    to benefit financially from their office.

     

     

    The CPI study has been criticized as an attack on the part-time

     

    legislature. "The center's

    assumption on conflict of interest is

     

    oversimplified and exaggerated," said William Pound,

    director of the

     

    National Conference of State Legislatures, a nonprofit,

     

  • onpartisan

    organization in Washington.

  •  

     

    Far from being a liability, a legislator's experience in an industry or

     

    profession makes for

    better laws, said Pound. "Who better than a farmer

     

    to work on agricultural legislation or a

    doctor to assist in the

     

    development of state medical policy?" he said.

     

     

    Of West Virginia's 34 senators, six reported financial interests in

     

    real estate. Five are

    lawyers and five are retired. Four senators have

     

    interests in oil, gas and timber concerns. The

    remaining financial

     

    interest categories are: restaurant, financial consultant, education,

     

    3;

    health business, contractor/engineer, 2; farmer, water company

     

    employee, small business owner,

    insurance agent, chemical employee, 1.

     

     

    Peter Eisner, CPI director, said the study is not an attack on a

     

    part-time legislature. "CPI is

    merely trying to cast sunlight onto

     

    whether some state lawmakers use their public office for

    private gain,"

     

    Eisner said. Stronger disclosure laws keep politicians honest and help

     

    rebuild

    public trust in government, he said.

     

     

    "What's the danger in people having all the information they can about

     

    their public officials?"

    he said. "There's no question that the lack of

     

    good disclosure handicaps our ability to analyze

    what legislators are

     

    up to. We're only scratching the surface."

     

     

    For a prominent businessman in a small state, avoiding conflicts

     

    of interest can be like

    negotiating a minefield. Sen. Brooks McCabe,

     

    D-Kanawha, has to be particularly cautious. He

    gets income from five

     

    businesses and trusts, and does business with seven government agencies

     

    -

    one of the highest number of financial interests in the state Senate,

     

    according to disclosure

    records.

     

     

    As a new senator, McCabe has relied on the state Ethics Commission to

     

    guide him through that

    minefield.

     

     

    "They will walk you through the gray areas," said McCabe. "And there

     

    are a lot of gray areas."

     

     

    For example, McCabe turned to the Ethics Commission when his banker

     

    offered him and his wife

    free tickets to a West Virginia University

     

    football game. The banker had invited them to sit in

    his stadium skybox

     

    before, but McCabe wondered if in his new position as state senator,

     

    he

    should accept the invitation.

     

     

    "The guy and I never even talk about politics," McCabe said. "Given

     

    that history, the Ethics

    Commission said it was OK." McCabe ended up

     

  • ot accepting the tickets anyway.
  •  

     

    More recently, McCabe has been criticized for his support of a new

     

    grocery store on the East

    End. Critics say if the store locates at a

     

    Washington Street site, a nearby housing project

    being built by McCabe

     

    will benefit.

     

     

    The project was planned long before the proposed grocery store, McCabe

     

  • aid, and accusations

    that he is using his position to influence the

  •  

    location of the grocery store are unfair.

     

     

    "Where I get frustrated is when people imply we do things on purpose

     

    for our own benefit," said

    McCabe. In the heat of battle, opponents can

     

    use allegations of conflict of interest to further

    their own arguments,

     

    he said.

     

     

    Still, McCabe has learned a lesson from the store debate.

     

     

    "The mere raising of the conflict-of-interest issue is a red flag

     

    telling us to look at the

    issue carefully," he said. "We need to be

     

  • ensitive to the public trust."
  •  

     

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

     

     


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