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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,


  • he had to make a choice

    - 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


  • tate legislatures,

    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


  • tates make no effort to check whether what legislators put on



    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,


  • onpartisan

    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

    remaining financial


    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

    private gain,"


    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


  • ot accepting the tickets anyway.


    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


    will benefit.



    The project was planned long before the proposed grocery store, McCabe


  • aid, and accusations

    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,


    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 the

    issue 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.




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