There is a right way and an incomplete way to note legislative conflicts of interest

There is a right way and an incomplete way to note legislative conflicts of interest

by
Mitch Coffman
December 19, 2013
Mitch Coffman
December 19, 2013

When the Legislature convenes Jan. 6, IFF’s Center for Government Accountability and Transparency will be watching how lawmakers disclose and account for their conflicts of interest. Conflicts are expected. This is a citizen Legislature. The key is that lawmakers clearly and concisely disclose their conflicts on the floor of the House or the Senate prior to their votes.

Some lawmakers have been good at verbalizing their conflicts, stating why a piece of legislation may impact an employer, a client or themselves. Others, well, could learn from those examples.

Here is an example of good, solid disclosure: Sen. Todd Lakey, a Republican, is a practicing attorney from Nampa. On March 4, 2013, the Senate considered House Bill 137. The bill would restrict urban renewal agency staff from entering into any building in the district without permission from the owner or obtaining a warrant. Lakey disclosed a conflict of interest under Senate rules:

Said Lakey, “My law firm represents two urban renewal districts and those districts are not impacted any differently than other districts due to this legislation.”

Lakey is clear and concise. He has a law firm. The law firm has clients. The clients include urban renewal districts, two in fact that, like other urban renewal districts, might be impacted by the legislation. Boom. Done. Could Lakey have done more? You bet. Naming the clients certainly helps, especially when those clients are funded by taxpayers. But he still did a fair job, naming the kind of government entities he represents.

What lawmakers typically do is this: “My firm has clients that may or may not be impacted by this legislation.” What firm? What does it do? What do the clients do?
What’s the impact?

Here is an example of a typical disclosure at the Legislature, also from last legislative session:

The House Health and Welfare chairman, Fred Wood of Burley, noted his conflict of interest during a debate in favor of House Bill 248, the now-enacted state insurance exchange. Here is what Rep. Wood said for his disclosure, in prepared remarks read aloud for his colleagues:

“I wish to disclose that my employer and/or its subsidiaries may or may not be affected by this legislation and I intent to vote.”
Wood’s disclosure is far less concise and lacks anything close to specificity: What employer? What subsidiaries? What industry? What impact? It’s hard to say.
Wood sits on the governing board of the Cassia Regional Medical Center in Burley and is listed as medical director, a fact that may have been illuminating for some of Wood’s colleagues. The degree to which Wood’s employment plays into his support of the insurance exchange is certainly debatable—by Wood’s colleagues, but only if they know about it.

It took only 12 seconds for Lakey to make his potential conflict known. Similarly, it would have taken a small amount of time for Wood to have used words like “hospital” and “medical director” in conjunction with his disclosure.

Our call for greater transparency and greater disclosure is not meant to attack or call into question a legislator’s motive, but rather to provide education and consideration of a better approach than what presently passes for disclosure in the Idaho Legislature.

Stay tuned for more information about the Idaho Integrity Project launching in January.

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