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Ethics law falling short of promise to clean up government, critics say

In 1974, mine inspectors wanted a pay raise. So they put hundreds of

 

dollars in a brown paper

bag and headed to Charleston.

 

 

The money was intended for Delegate T. J. Scott, D-McDowell, who

 

  • ponsored legislation to

    increase their salaries. They gave the bag to

  •  

    the chairman of the House Finance Committee, and

    asked him to deliver

     

    it to Scott. The finance chairman turned the money over to Lewis

     

    McManus,

    D-Raleigh, who was then speaker of the House.

     

     

    McManus remembers calling the mine inspectors in for a meeting. They

     

    confirmed the payment to

    Scott, and apparently didn't think they had

     

    done anything wrong.

     

     

    "At the end of the meeting, their leader turned to me and asked, 'What

     

    about our raise?'"

    McManus

  • aid.
  • "I told him, 'Maybe next year, but not

     

    this year.'"

     

     

    Scott said the mine inspectors gave him the money to help them hire a

     

    lobbyist. The House Rules

    Committee reprimanded Scott for

     

    "irresponsible actions." He stayed in office another six years.

     

     

    Scott was never charged with any violation of the law. Under the

     

    existing laws, he had

    committed no crime. For Scott to be convicted of

     

    bribery, prosecutors would have had to show he

    accepted the money, and

     

    the money influenced his actions.

     

     

    Today's House clerk was brand-new to the Legislature in 1973. Greg Gray

     

  • aid that if the Scott

    case occurred today, he would probably been

  •  

    "kicked out on his ear."

     

     

    "There probably would be a criminal investigation," Gray

  • aid.
  • "The

     

    whole tenor of things has

    changed for the better. Government is

     

    more open now."

     

     

    When he became governor in January 1989, Gaston Caperton called an

     

    unprecedented special

    session before the regular session. First on his

     

    agenda: a new governmental ethics law.

     

     

    The ethics law promised to clean up state

     

    government, including the Legislature. But

     

    critics

    say more reforms are needed for it to live up to

     

    its promise.

     

     

    Corruption led to ethics law

     

     

    Several prominent corruption cases in the late 1980s helped lead to the

     

    passage of the 1989

    ethics bill, according to Robert "Chuck"

     

    Chambers, the bill's sponsor and former Speaker of the

    House.

     

     

    Two successive presidents of the state Senate were convicted on federal

     

    corruption charges for

    accepting money from lobbyists.

     

     

    Former Senate President Larry Tucker pleaded guilty to accepting

     

    $10,000 from lobbyist Sammy

    D'Annunzio of Clarksburg. He reportedly

     

    tried to return the money, but D'Annunzio was

    cooperating with federal

     

    investigators and wore a tape recording device during the meeting.

     

     

    Tucker's predecessor as Senate president, Dan Tonkovich, also pleaded

     

    guilty to extorting money

    from gambling and insurance interests.

     

     

    In 1988, former Gov. Arch Moore was already accused of extortion, mail

     

    fraud and tax evasion,

    charges that would earn him a prison term in

     

    1990. At the trial, Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph

    Savage said, "Let

     

    there be no mistake. Arch Moore is a 'criminal.'"

     

     

    "Political corruption helped create a demand for change," Chambers

     

  • aid.
  •  

     

    Chambers had sponsored ethics bills for several years in the

     

    Legislature, but made little

    progress. In 1989, the West Virginia

     

    Governmental Ethics Act passed with only one dissenting

    vote.

     

     

    "The passage of the West Virginia Governmental Ethics Act

     

    provides the state with one of the

    most stringent sets of ethics

     

    laws in the nation," Caperton wrote in 1989, "and sends a

    powerful,

     

    unequivocal message: West Virginia will not tolerate dishonesty, influence

     

    peddling

    or conflicts of interest."

     

     

    The act put into law a set of ethical standards for legislators

     

    and everyone else in state

    government. It required legislators

     

    to disclose their personal financial interests. It told

    lobbyists to

     

    register and say who employs them. It puts limits on the gifts and

     

    meals

    legislators can accept from lobbyists.

     

     

    But critics say the ethics law left open

     

  • ome critical loopholes. The Ethics Commission has no

    power to

  •  

    initiate investigations of wrongdoing. Lawmakers and lobbyists only need

     

    to disclose

    some of their financial dealings.

     

     

    Some say the paper bags of cash have been replaced by

     

    contributions to ever-more-expensive

    campaigns.

     

     

    Hard to vote against friends

     

     

    Before the law's passage, some legislators accepted gifts and meals

     

    from lobbyists without a

    second thought, Chambers

  • aid.
  • The

     

    ethics law helped them recognize how being wined and

     

    dined

    looked to the public.

     

     

    "The new law woke people up," Chambers

  • aid.
  • "It does create an

     

    improper appearance, even if

    there are no improper actions."

     

     

    In the old days, lobbyists reportedly delivered cases of alcohol to

     

    legislators, and free mixed

    drinks were served out of a hallway closet.

     

     

    As recently as the late 1980s, coal companies operated an exclusive

     

    hangout for legislators,

    called the Coal Suite. Perry Bryant remembers

     

    a legislator taking him to see the suite on the

    top floor of the

     

    Charleston House Holiday Inn. He was a lobbyist for Citizens Action Group

     

    at

    the time; today, he lobbies for the West Virginia Education

     

    Association.

     

     

    The suite had a free open bar, a buffet stocked with shrimp and

     

    appetizers, comfortable

    couches, a big television. It was open late

     

    into the night.

     

     

    "Legislators were a long way from home, with little to do," Bryant

     

  • aid.
  • "Coal lobbyists would

    feed them, befriend them. They'd talk about

     

    anything but legislation."

     

     

    This subtle form of influence-shaping surprised Bryant. The Coal Suite

     

    helped him realize how

    money helped build relationships, which led to

     

    access to legislators and more.

     

     

    Even though the Coal Suite no longer exists, lobbyists still curry

     

    favor with legislators

    through meals and receptions, Bryant

  • aid.
  •  

     

    "It's a subtle form of influence-buying," he

  • aid.
  • "It's hard to vote

     

    against your friends."

     

     

    Knowing who spends the most

     

     

    The West Virginia Ethics Law required lobbyists to

     

    disclose their employers and how much they

    spent on meals, gifts and

     

    campaign contributions. But this is just the tip of the iceberg

     

    of

    lobbyist spending.

     

     

    In Maryland, lobbyists must disclose almost every dollar they spend:

     

  • alaries, office expenses,

    research, etc.

  •  

     

    "We want to know who spends the most to get the very best," said John

     

    O'Donnell, director of

    the Maryland State Ethics Commission for

     

    21 years. "We want to capture the total effort."

     

     

    In 1999, Maryland lobbyists spent more than $23 million. If they

     

    reported only what the West

    Virginia law requires, they would

     

    have only reported $757,356 in spending.

     

     

    The West Virginia Ethics Commission doesn't have the power to

     

    initiate investigations.

     

     

    "It's a fundamental problem," Chambers

  • aid.
  • "Unless somebody makes a

     

    formal complaint, they

    have no investigating authority. They don't have

     

    the support to be more aggressive."

     

     

    Stronger disclosure laws

     

     

    In May, the nonpartisan, nonprofit Center for Public Integrity rated

     

    disclosure laws for all 50

    states. Disclosure laws require legislators

     

    to tell the public about their personal finances

    and other things that

     

    could cause a conflict of interest for them.

     

     

    West Virginia ranked 43rd. Its disclosure laws do not require any

     

    information about the

    finances of immediate family members, for

     

    example.

     

     

    The Ethics Commission also has no way of ensuring that the

     

    information provided by legislators

    is accurate or complete.

     

     

    CPI ranked Washington state first in its disclosure laws. Washington

     

    requires detailed

    disclosure of financial interests for legislators and

     

    their families, according to Doug Ellis

    with the Washington Public

     

    Disclosure Commission. His commission can also initiate action

     

    if

    something appears to be missing or wrong with a filing.

     

     

    "The public needs proof that officials are acting in the public

     

    interest and not for private

    gain," Ellis

  • aid.
  •  

     

    Campaign finance reform: 'the ultimate solution'

     

     

    In addition to better disclosure, West Virginia Citizen Action Group is

     

    calling for reform of

    the campaign finance system. As campaigns become

     

    more expensive, candidates become more

    beholden to contributors, the

     

    group contends.

     

     

    The cost of a legislative campaign keeps rising, said Norm Steenstra,

     

    director of CAG. Its

    analysis of 1998 data showed that between 1996 and

     

    1998, legislative campaign spending grew 10

    times as fast as the cost

     

    of living.

     

     

    CAG is calling for "Clean Money" legislation, which has already passed

     

    in Maine, Vermont,

    Arizona and New Mexico. Candidates would qualify for

     

    public funding if they refuse

    contributions from special interests.

     

     

    "It's the ultimate solution," Steenstra

  • aid.
  • "It's the reform that

     

    enables all other reforms."

     

     

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

     

     


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