Ethics law falling short of promise to clean up government, critics say


In 1974, mine inspectors wanted a pay raise. So they put hundreds of dollars in a brown paperbag and headed to Charleston.
  The money was intended for Delegate T. J. Scott, D-McDowell, who 
  • ponsored legislation toincrease their salaries. They gave the bag to
  •  the chairman of the House Finance Committee, andasked him to deliver it to Scott. The finance chairman turned the money over to Lewis
     McManus,D-Raleigh, who was then speaker of the House.  McManus remembers calling the mine inspectors in for a meeting. They
     confirmed the payment toScott, and apparently didn't think they had done anything wrong.  "At the end of the meeting, their leader turned to me and asked, 'What about our raise?'"McManus
  • aid.
  • "I told him, 'Maybe next year, but not this year.'"  Scott said the mine inspectors gave him the money to help them hire a lobbyist. The House RulesCommittee reprimanded Scott for "irresponsible actions." He stayed in office another six years.  Scott was never charged with any violation of the law. Under the existing laws, he hadcommitted no crime. For Scott to be convicted of bribery, prosecutors would have had to show heaccepted the money, and the money influenced his actions.  Today's House clerk was brand-new to the Legislature in 1973. Greg Gray 
  • aid that if the Scottcase occurred today, he would probably been
  •  "kicked out on his ear."  "There probably would be a criminal investigation," Gray
  • aid.
  • "The whole tenor of things haschanged for the better. Government is more open now."  When he became governor in January 1989, Gaston Caperton called an unprecedented specialsession before the regular session. First on his agenda: a new governmental ethics law.  The ethics law promised to clean up state government, including the Legislature. But criticssay more reforms are needed for it to live up to its promise.  Corruption led to ethics law  Several prominent corruption cases in the late 1980s helped lead to the passage of the 1989ethics bill, according to Robert "Chuck" Chambers, the bill's sponsor and former Speaker of theHouse.  Two successive presidents of the state Senate were convicted on federal corruption charges foraccepting money from lobbyists.  Former Senate President Larry Tucker pleaded guilty to accepting $10,000 from lobbyist SammyD'Annunzio of Clarksburg. He reportedly tried to return the money, but D'Annunzio wascooperating with federal investigators and wore a tape recording device during the meeting.  Tucker's predecessor as Senate president, Dan Tonkovich, also pleaded guilty to extorting moneyfrom gambling and insurance interests.  In 1988, former Gov. Arch Moore was already accused of extortion, mail fraud and tax evasion,charges that would earn him a prison term in 1990. At the trial, Assistant U.S. Attorney JosephSavage said, "Let there be no mistake. Arch Moore is a 'criminal.'"  "Political corruption helped create a demand for change," Chambers 
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  •   Chambers had sponsored ethics bills for several years in the Legislature, but made littleprogress. In 1989, the West Virginia Governmental Ethics Act passed with only one dissentingvote.  "The passage of the West Virginia Governmental Ethics Act provides the state with one of themost stringent sets of ethics laws in the nation," Caperton wrote in 1989, "and sends apowerful, unequivocal message: West Virginia will not tolerate dishonesty, influence peddlingor conflicts of interest."  The act put into law a set of ethical standards for legislators and everyone else in stategovernment. It required legislators to disclose their personal financial interests. It toldlobbyists to register and say who employs them. It puts limits on the gifts and mealslegislators can accept from lobbyists.  But critics say the ethics law left open 
  • ome critical loopholes. The Ethics Commission has nopower to
  •  initiate investigations of wrongdoing. Lawmakers and lobbyists only need to disclosesome of their financial dealings.  Some say the paper bags of cash have been replaced by contributions to ever-more-expensivecampaigns.  Hard to vote against friends  Before the law's passage, some legislators accepted gifts and meals from lobbyists without asecond thought, Chambers
  • aid.
  • The ethics law helped them recognize how being wined and dinedlooked to the public.   "The new law woke people up," Chambers
  • aid.
  • "It does create an improper appearance, even ifthere are no improper actions."  In the old days, lobbyists reportedly delivered cases of alcohol to legislators, and free mixeddrinks were served out of a hallway closet.  As recently as the late 1980s, coal companies operated an exclusive hangout for legislators,called the Coal Suite. Perry Bryant remembers a legislator taking him to see the suite on thetop floor of the Charleston House Holiday Inn. He was a lobbyist for Citizens Action Group atthe time; today, he lobbies for the West Virginia Education Association.  The suite had a free open bar, a buffet stocked with shrimp and appetizers, comfortablecouches, a big television. It was open late into the night.  "Legislators were a long way from home, with little to do," Bryant 
  • aid.
  • "Coal lobbyists wouldfeed them, befriend them. They'd talk about anything but legislation."  This subtle form of influence-shaping surprised Bryant. The Coal Suite helped him realize howmoney helped build relationships, which led to access to legislators and more.  Even though the Coal Suite no longer exists, lobbyists still curry favor with legislatorsthrough meals and receptions, Bryant
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  •   "It's a subtle form of influence-buying," he
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  • "It's hard to vote against your friends."  Knowing who spends the most  The West Virginia Ethics Law required lobbyists to disclose their employers and how much theyspent on meals, gifts and campaign contributions. But this is just the tip of the iceberg oflobbyist spending.  In Maryland, lobbyists must disclose almost every dollar they spend: 
  • alaries, office expenses,research, etc.
  •   "We want to know who spends the most to get the very best," said John O'Donnell, director ofthe Maryland State Ethics Commission for 21 years. "We want to capture the total effort."  In 1999, Maryland lobbyists spent more than $23 million. If they reported only what the WestVirginia law requires, they would have only reported $757,356 in spending.  The West Virginia Ethics Commission doesn't have the power to initiate investigations.  "It's a fundamental problem," Chambers
  • aid.
  • "Unless somebody makes a formal complaint, theyhave no investigating authority. They don't have the support to be more aggressive."  Stronger disclosure laws  In May, the nonpartisan, nonprofit Center for Public Integrity rated disclosure laws for all 50states. Disclosure laws require legislators to tell the public about their personal financesand other things that could cause a conflict of interest for them.  West Virginia ranked 43rd. Its disclosure laws do not require any information about thefinances of immediate family members, for example.  The Ethics Commission also has no way of ensuring that the information provided by legislatorsis accurate or complete.  CPI ranked Washington state first in its disclosure laws. Washington requires detaileddisclosure of financial interests for legislators and their families, according to Doug Elliswith the Washington Public Disclosure Commission. His commission can also initiate action ifsomething appears to be missing or wrong with a filing.  "The public needs proof that officials are acting in the public interest and not for privategain," Ellis
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  •   Campaign finance reform: 'the ultimate solution'  In addition to better disclosure, West Virginia Citizen Action Group is calling for reform ofthe campaign finance system. As campaigns become more expensive, candidates become morebeholden to contributors, the group contends.  The cost of a legislative campaign keeps rising, said Norm Steenstra, director of CAG. Itsanalysis of 1998 data showed that between 1996 and 1998, legislative campaign spending grew 10times as fast as the cost of living.  CAG is calling for "Clean Money" legislation, which has already passed in Maine, Vermont,Arizona and New Mexico. Candidates would qualify for public funding if they refusecontributions from special interests.  "It's the ultimate solution," Steenstra
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  • "It's the reform that enables all other reforms."  To contact staff writer Scott Finn, use e-mail or phone 357-4323.  
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