For the next few weeks, the Sunday Gazette-Mail will be investigating the cycle of influence inthe state Legislature - how
campaign contributions, lobbyist spending and personal financialinterests 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 MiningCommittee, 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 $3million. His critics pointed out that Ross' own companies would have received tax breaks underhis proposal. Ross' holdings in oil and gas point out a dilemma facing part-time legislators - how theybalance personal finances and public ervice.
Ross says he is promoting the entire oil and gas industry, including its employees and smalloperators. He compares his role as a state enator with an umpire's in a baseball game. "I haveto 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 theWest Virginia Environmental Council, which has opposed some of Ross' proposals. "Any umpirefound to have accepted money from a player should be fired." "If you eliminated everybody with another interest
from the Legislature, you wouldn't haveanybody 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 theareas they regulate. The report showed that nearly half the states' disclosure ystems failedto provide the public with basic information on tate lawmakers' private interests.
For West Virginia, center researchers analyzed financial disclosure forms filed in 1999. Theinformation 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 forstate 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 minimalinvestment information. CPI flunked West Virginia's law for not requiring information aboutspouse'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 almostall sources of income and financial holdings for themselves and their immediate family. Forexample, their financial disclosure forms look at both real estate and family income. This typeof disclosure has helped uncover land deals where politicians were trying to steer public
worksprojects to relatives, said Doug Ellis, spokesman with the Washington State Public
DisclosureCommission. 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?" Ellisaid.
"Washington citizens wanted tangible proof that public
officials were working in thepublic's best interest
, instead of their own." West Virginia ethics law does not prevent legislators with personal interests from voting onissues 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 whatlawmakers put down on their forms is actually true. "We're not the IRS," said Richard Alker, director of the West Virginia Ethics Commission. "Wedon't have the power to audit reports." The commission can investigate once a valid complainthas 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 vacationand 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 frombanks totaling almost $400,000. He also was part owner with Sen. Oshel Craigo and lobbyist LeffMoore 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 Charlestoncondominium he shares with his wife, Helmick told county officials he had "sold a milliondollars of my own property in the last few years." Helmick said a long legal fight over mining rights to land he bought in the MonongahelaNational Forest kept him from seeing any of the income he earned from land sales. He also saidhe no longer has any interest
in MCH Properties. "Everything there is truthful," Helmick said about his disclosure forms. He said the EthicsCommission 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 existingdisclosure requirements for financial and
campaign finance information are cumbersome andinvade people's privacy. "It's a lot of reporting, a lot of paperwork," he aid.
"It discourages people from running foroffice." The director of the West Virginia Ethics Commission said the weak disclosure requirements are ablemish on an otherwise strong state ethics law. "The public
disclosure requirements are not as effective as they could or should be," Alkeraid.
To contact staff writer Scott Finn, use e-mail or call 357-4323.