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
than 50 years.
But when the West Virginia Supreme Court said quitting wasn't enough,
- ask her husband's company to drop its
lucrative contract with the state, or withdraw from the
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
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
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
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,
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
interest categories are: restaurant, financial consultant, education,
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
Eisner said. Stronger disclosure laws keep politicians honest and help
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
As a new senator, McCabe has relied on the state Ethics Commission to
guide him through that
"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,
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
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
The project was planned long before the proposed grocery store, McCabe
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,
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
To contact staff writer Scott Finn, use e-mail or call 357-4323.