Editor’s Note: Leonard’s junket exposes ethics holes

Nolan Finley
The Detroit News

Whether Tom Leonard was overtly lobbied on the junket he took to London seems less important than the question of why the Michigan House speaker would think it’s OK to accept a free trip that included interactions with lobbyists who have business before the Legislature.

Under Michigan’s weakest-in-the-nation ethics laws, Leonard didn’t have to report the late August travel funded by GOPAC Education Fund, a nonprofit that aims to groom emerging Republican leaders.

Michigan’s rules for assuring its elected leaders aren’t compromised by trips, meals and gifts are so holey that even an all-expense paid visit to London doesn’t merit reporting and review.

Leonard’s travel only came to light in connection with the forced resignation of Ohio House Speaker Cliff Rosenberg, who stepped down last week due to an FBI investigation into his travel. Rosenberg also was on the trip to London, and photos that accompanied news stories of his resignation show Leonard in the group posing outside London’s Bulldog Bar.

Also on hand were lobbyists for the payday lending industry, which currently has a package of bills before the state Senate that, if passed, will end up in the House.

Leonard’s spokesperson, Gideon D’Assandro, said the speaker may have met the lobbyists, but didn’t talk business with them.

Politicians on the trip visited Parliament, talked with British officials about trade and studied Margaret Thatcher and Winston Churchill.

The trip may have been useful for Leonard. If it was, and GOPAC is considered an appropriate funder for such travel, Leonard should have at least been required to justify the visit and account for any lobbyists he encountered. GOPAC, by the way, does not reveal the names of its funders.

Michigan has only marginal rules governing such junkets. The state doesn’t require groups like GOPAC to report the trips it provides lawmakers. And as long as a lawmaker says no lobbying occurred during the travel, as Leonard contends was the case in London, he or she doesn’t have to disclose much of anything.

That makes Michigan’s ethics law a joke. A legislative leader shouldn’t be able to accept a trip paid for by a third party, a trip that also includes lobbyists, and avoid reporting it simply by claiming not to have been lobbied.

The Leonard trip highlights the need for greater protections to assure the integrity of elected officials. Nothing about this smells right.

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