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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



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



    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





    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 -



    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



    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



    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





    "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





    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



    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





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

  • aid.
  • "It discourages


    people from running for




    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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