Doing the right thing - or more importantly, appearing to do the right thing - can be tough fora state legislator.
Ask Sen. Martha Yeager Walker, D-Kanawha. When she became a candidate for state senator in1992, she quit her job at her husband's company, Jarrett Printing, to avoid the appearance ofany conflict of interest. Jarrett Printing had published materials for the Legislature for
morethan 50 years. But when the West Virginia Supreme Court said quitting wasn't enough,
he had to make a choice- ask her husband's company to drop its
lucrative contract with the state, or withdraw from theelection. 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 tate legislatures,focusing on potential conflicts of interest
among lawmakers. West Virginia ranked 43rd indisclosure laws for state legislators - laws that require lawmakers to tell the public abouttheir employment income and financial assets. The CPI study flunked West Virginia's disclosure laws for not asking for information commonlyrequired by other states, such as real estate holdings, positions on corporate boards andspouse's income. Also, many tates make no effort to check whether what legislators put ontheir
disclosure forms is accurate or complete. Despite these loopholes in disclosure laws, CPI was able to determine that a high percentage ofWest 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'sassumption on conflict of interest is
oversimplified and exaggerated," said William Pound,director of the National Conference of State Legislatures, a nonprofit, onpartisanorganization in Washington.
Far from being a liability, a legislator's experience in an industry or profession makes forbetter laws, said Pound. "Who better than a farmer to work on agricultural legislation or adoctor 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 arelawyers and five are retired. Four senators have interests in oil, gas and timber concerns. Theremaining financial interest categories are: restaurant, financial consultant, education, 3;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 ismerely trying to cast sunlight onto whether some state lawmakers use their public office forprivate gain," Eisner said. Stronger disclosure laws keep politicians honest and help rebuildpublic 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 analyzewhat legislators are up to. We're only scratching the surface." For a prominent businessman in a small state, avoiding conflicts
of interest can be likenegotiating a minefield. Sen. Brooks McCabe, D-Kanawha, has to be particularly cautious. Hegets 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 disclosurerecords. As a new senator, McCabe has relied on the state Ethics Commission to guide him through thatminefield. "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 wifefree tickets to a West Virginia University football game. The banker had invited them to sit inhis stadium skybox before, but McCabe wondered if in his new position as state senator, heshould accept the invitation. "The guy and I never even talk about politics," McCabe said. "Given that history, the EthicsCommission said it was OK." McCabe ended up ot accepting the tickets anyway.
More recently, McCabe has been criticized for his support of a new grocery store on the EastEnd. Critics say if the store locates at a Washington Street site, a nearby housing projectbeing built by McCabe will benefit. The project was planned long before the proposed grocery store, McCabe aid, and accusationsthat 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," saidMcCabe. In the heat of battle, opponents can use allegations of conflict of interest to furthertheir own arguments, he said. 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 theissue carefully," he said. "We need to be ensitive to the public trust."
To contact staff writer Scott Finn, use e-mail or call 357-4323.