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Church State Issues

Arizona Legislature is short on ethics rules

Mar 22, 2013

Arizona Republic

This really isn't an article about separation of church and state but it illustrates the problems we have in forcing our law makers to obey the Constitution and not pass laws which mix government and religion.

When you let the fox guard the chicken house, and give the fox the keys to the chicken house, there isn't much you can do to keep the fox from stealing chickens.

Of course even if there were iron clad rules against conflicts of interest do you really think the members of the legislator would enforce them against themselves???

Of course not.

Currently the police are expected to obey the same laws as the rest of us. But when the police break the laws, they rarely enforce the laws against themselves.

In Arizona we have very tough laws requiring government bureaucrats to give out public records. But there are absolutely no penalties for government bureaucrats that break the law. And as a result government bureaucrats routinely break the laws knowing they can because there is no punishment.

I suspect the same thing would happen if we had iron clad rules on ethics. The politicians would make sure they would receive at most a slap on breaking the ethics rules.

Arizona Legislature is short on ethics rules

By Alia Beard Rau The Republic | Thu Mar 21, 2013 11:27 PM

There’s almost no such thing as a conflict of interest at the Arizona Legislature, at least according to state law.

Even when lawmakers introduce or vote on legislation that benefits them, it’s all legal if at least nine other Arizonans also benefit.

So, there is no problem with a lawyer proposing to make it easier for all attorneys to recover legal fees, or the executive director of a school tax-credit organization voting for a bill to increase tax-credit opportunities, or a foster parent supporting efforts to give foster parents more money — all of which have happened in recent years.

And if allegations of a conflict were to arise, it’s the lawmakers themselves who determine wrongdoing and hand out punishment.

Arizona’s conflict-of-interest regulations are looser than laws in many states, national ethics experts say. And Arizona is among only nine states without an independent organization to oversee ethics complaints.

Ben Bycel, an attorney and former executive director of the Los Angeles City Ethics Commission, called Arizona’s law laughable.

“If you have 11 people who are going to make millions of dollars, why isn’t that a conflict of interest?” he said. “And I would consider it an embarrassment for Arizona that they don’t have an ethics commission.”

Following the Fiesta Bowl ticket scandal, in which the organization paid for 31 elected officials to take trips to football games across the country, there was talk of forming an independent ethics commission. But Republican leadership refused to advance a Democratic proposal this session to create a governor-appointed commission. And a Democratic bill to expand what constitutes a conflict of interest has also gone nowhere.

Leaders of the Republican-controlled Legislature say there are no recent examples of lawmakers proposing legislation to financially benefit themselves. They say unfounded concerns of conflicts are the unfortunate byproduct of a part-time citizen Legislature in which many members supplement their $24,000-a-year salary with outside work. But, they say, that also allows them to bring varied expertise to lawmaking.

“A citizen Legislature brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the legislative process,” said Senate President Andy Biggs, R-Gilbert. “It’s tough to forbid voting on anything that may affect you. I have kids in school. Should I not be voting on education?”

Sen. Steve Gallardo, D-Phoenix, introduced a bill this year to expand the conflict-of-interest exceptions to an action that impacts fewer than 100 individuals or that could benefit the lawmaker by more than $500. He described the current law as “a joke.”

“The idea that as long as more than 10 people are going to benefit financially then it’s OK for us to pass legislation that will line our pockets is outrageous,” he said. “I would imagine the vast majority of people in Arizona would have serious concerns about that.”

Arizona rules

Arizona law requires legislators to file annual financial-disclosure forms detailing the legislator’s employer, his or her spouse’s employer, personal debts, gifts over $500 received and investments, among other things. The forms, which are on file with the Secretary of State’s Office, are publicly accessible online.

But no state agency audits the documents to ensure compliance with state reporting laws. In the Fiesta Bowl scandal, several lawmakers failed to properly report gifts. There was an investigation, but no criminal charges were filed. Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery said at the time that he couldn’t prove criminal liability because of inconsistent state laws regarding gifts to public officials and vague reporting requirements for elected officials and lobbyists.

As potential conflicts arise, lawmakers can seek the advice of legislative attorneys, but the advice is not subject to public scrutiny.

Lawmakers can also file a document notifying legislative leadership of a possible conflict of interest, declaring that they have sought legal advice or stating that they will not vote on an issue and why. Those documents are public, but no official entity ensures all possible conflicts are documented.

State conflict-of-interest laws vary widely. Florida requires lawmakers to disclose any time they or their employer would benefit. In Connecticut, there is no conflict if a bill benefits an entire profession.

Unlike many other states, Arizona has no outside ethics group to examine allegations of conflicts. Instead, the House and Senate have ethics committees, which consist of a bipartisan group of lawmakers.

Residents, outside organizations or lawmakers can formally request an ethics investigation, and the committees determine whether and how to investigate.

Such requests are rare. There was no formal request for a committee investigation into the Fiesta Bowl trip incidents.

None of the handful of investigations conducted in the past 13 years was related to conflict of interest. They included allegations of inappropriately interrupting a filibuster, fighting among members and domestic violence.

“We’ve had people who have been removed from our body for various activities,” Biggs said. “But we haven’t had a conflict-of-interest problem.”

Possible conflicts

An analysis of 2013 financial-disclosure forms shows this Legislature includes teachers, lawyers, a doctor, real-estate agents and landlords. A number of lawmakers also run or work for consulting firms whose focuses are sometimes unclear. The disclosure forms do not require these lawmakers to reveal their clients, making it difficult to evaluate whether there may be conflicts of interest with bills they propose.

For example, House Minority Leader Chad Campbell, D-Phoenix, on his financial-disclosure form lists “public affairs consulting” for Inspired Connections in Phoenix. Gallardo on his form states he is self-employed as an “independent consultant.” Sen. Al Melvin, R-Tucson, lists ownership of a business called American Quality International Consulting. None provided details about clients.

There are situations where lawmakers may benefit in ways not related to their employment, which can also be difficult for the public to determine.

For example, Sen. Rick Murphy, R-Peoria, is a foster parent who has proposed bills that would increase services for foster children and families.

“When you have a citizen Legislature, the whole point is for people to deal with the things they are familiar with,” Murphy said.

In other cases, lawmakers’ involvement in areas their legislation would impact are more obvious, although none would violate the state’s rule of 10. Lawmakers say they proposed these bills not because they will benefit but because they understand the issues.

Rep. Kelly Townsend, R-Mesa, has worked as a doula, supporting pregnant women during deliveries. She proposed legislation to create a study committee that could recommend the state’s Medicaid program pay for patients to use doulas.

Townsend said she is no longer a practicing doula and so would not benefit financially from such a program. During a hearing, she said that her past experience has shown her that such a program could decrease costly Caesarean sections paid for by the state’s Medicaid program, saving Arizona money.

Sen. Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler, is executive director of Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization, which in 2012 accepted $13 million in donations and provided private-school scholarships for 5,683 students. He has proposed and supported legislation that would bring more money to school-tuition organizations. Yarbrough said he has consulted with legislative attorneys to confirm that he has no conflict of interest.

“They’ve ruled conclusively that it’s not a conflict,” he said. “There are over 50 STOs in the state, and I happen to work for one of them.”

Yarbrough said he proposes STO legislation not because he may benefit financially but because he understands the issue.

That is the nature of a citizen Legislature “unless they want to pay us six figures,” he said. “We have to decide what we want: a citizen Legislature or people who are completely removed from even the remotest conflict.”

In the past five years, eight state lawmakers have filed paperwork related to conflicts of interest. Most were simply creating a public record stating that they had consulted with legislative attorneys and were told they were not in violation of the law.

“We all have conflicts of interest, and that’s not inherently bad,” said Peggy Kerns, director of the Center for Ethics in Government with the National Conference of State Legislatures and a former Colorado legislator. “Your expertise in your professional life has value at the Legislature.”

But, she said, elected officials do need to understand that they are held to a higher standard and should try to avoid any perceived conflicts of interest.

Proposed changes

Democrats over the past several years have proposed legislation to increase disclosure requirements. None was ever given a hearing.

This year, Sen. Ed Ableser, D-Tempe, introduced a bill to require legislators to file a notice every time they vote on a bill in which they or an immediate family member would financially benefit as part of a business, profession or class of people.

Rep. Martin Quezada, D-Phoenix, introduced a bill to create a six-member independent election and ethics commission to investigate and enforce issues related to political committees, candidates, ballot measures and members of the Legislature. The bill was never given a hearing.

Gallardo has also unsuccessfully pushed to make financial-disclosure forms more detailed and to require that lawmakers file them more often.

“The only purpose of financial disclosures is so the people of Arizona can identify any conflict of interest,” he said. “But if you have a reporting system that’s not clear, that’s not proper disclosure.”

California attorney Bob Stern, who helped write California’s ethics law, said Arizona’s lack of an independent ethics commission — and reliance on the Legislature’s ethics committees — is even more concerning than the state’s weak conflict law.

“It doesn’t matter whether it’s Arizona or Congress, it’s very difficult to enforce the law against a colleague,” Stern said. “It’s just the way we are as human beings.”

He said the Legislature isn’t likely to support a law to create additional oversight.

“It almost takes a voter initiative to do something like this to make it really meaningful,” he said.

Northern Arizona University politics professor Zachary Smith said he believes the law needs to change.

“Given the things that have happened in the last couple of years regarding the Fiesta Bowl, that makes it clear Arizona has a problem that needs to be addressed,” he said.

Murphy said he believes state regulations are appropriate. Beyond that, “voters can decide where the line is on a case-by-case basis,” he said.

Biggs said California, which has a full-time Legislature and an independent ethics commission, should not be looked to as an example.

“They have a professional legislature,” he said. “And what you see out of there is what you see in Washington, D.C: professional politicians who lose touch with the real people.”


Disclosing conflicts

Legislators on occasion notify the clerk’s office of possible conflicts of interest related to legislation. Here are details of the notices filed since 2010:

Rep. Justin Olson, R-Mesa, in 2012 reported that he would abstain from voting on a bill to give multistate service providers, including Apollo Group, tax benefits because “it will impact my employer.” Olson is a tax analyst with Apollo Group.

Former Rep. Amanda Reeve, R-Phoenix, in 2011 reported that she worked for a law firm that dealt with environmental and energy companies. She was chairwoman of the House Environment Committee and served on the House Energy and Natural Resources Committee. She reported that House attorneys told her it was not a conflict.

Rep. Brenda Barton, R-Payson, in 2011 reported that her husband runs a consulting company that worked with a Scottsdale-based ethanol-production company. She served on the House Higher Education, Innovation and Reform Committee, the Agriculture and Water Committee and the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. She wrote that she consulted with House attorneys.

Sen. Steve Yarbrough, R-Chandler, in 2010 as a state representative reported that he was executive director of Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization. He wrote that he consulted with House attorneys who said his employment would not conflict with voting on STO bills.

Rep. Andy Tobin, R-Paulden, in 2009 reported that his consulting company worked with a health care organization that served patients of the state’s Medicaid program. He wrote that he consulted with House attorneys and there was no conflict.

Rep. Chris Deschene, D-St. Michaels, in 2009 reported that he is an attorney for a power company. He served on the House Natural Resources and Rural Affairs Committee and the House Water and Energy Committee. He wrote that he consulted with House attorneys who said there was no conflict.

Former Sen. Jack Harper, R-Surprise, in 2008 reported that his wife was a teacher and could benefit from the passage of a bill covering teacher performance pay. He abstained from the vote.

Harper in 2010 reported that he was a licensed loan originator and could be impacted by a bill covering reverse mortgages. He abstained from the vote.