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
interests affect legislation.
Sen. Mike Ross, D-Randolph, has a personal business interest in
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
Ross' holdings in oil and gas point out a dilemma facing part-time
legislators - how they
balance personal finances and public
Ross says he is promoting the entire oil and gas industry, including
its employees and small
operators. He compares his role as a state
to look out for
the interests of the whole team, not any one player," he
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
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
regulate. The report showed that nearly half the states' disclosure
to provide the public with basic information on
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
- 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
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
"Washington citizens wanted tangible
proof that public officials were working in the
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
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
$5,000 on his disclosure forms for the last
three years, outside his legislative salary of
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
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
"I think you should do
all of them."
Not all legislators are in favor of additional requirements and
disclosure requirements for financial and
campaign finance information are cumbersome and
"It's a lot of reporting, a lot of paperwork," he
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
"The public disclosure requirements are not as effective as they
could or should be," Alker
To contact staff writer Scott Finn, use e-mail or call 357-4323.