Our Editorial: Make lawmakers disclose conflicts

The Detroit News

How ethically challenged is the Michigan Legislature? So much so that lawmakers face only minimal requirements for reporting conflicts of interest, and even when they do, they still can vote on bills from which they may benefit.

A Center for Public Integrity analysis found a half-dozen instances where Michigan lawmakers voted on bills even after publicly disclosing they had a conflict of interest.

The penalties for doing so are almost non-existent, and are never imposed.

The state Senate bans members from voting on measures in which they have a private or professional stake. A violation can get a member expelled, but it seems to have never happened, and there are no provisions for criminal charges.

The House allows members to decide for themselves whether to reveal a conflict, and doesn’t prevent them from voting on the legislation even if they do disclose.

This is not a system that works to assure the public that its lawmakers are operating above board and only for the good of their constituents.

The analysis comes just weeks after the Legislature’s similarly puny restrictions on lawmaker travel became an issue when it was learned House Speaker Tom Leonard, R-DeWitt, took a trip to London paid for by a third party.

As reported then, it is perfectly acceptable under Michigan’s rules for a legislator to take such trips as long as they aren’t lobbied by the group or individual paying for the travel.

Leonard contends he didn’t have to report the London visit because he wasn’t lobbied, even though he attended functions with lobbyists for industries that have business before the Legislature.

No wonder Michigan earns an “F” grade for its ethics laws governing public officials.

Rep. Scott Dianda, D-Calumet, introduced a bill that would make voting on legislation when a conflict of interest exists a felony carrying a fine of up to $5,000 and four years in prison.

That might get lawmakers’ attention and better focus their awareness of potential conflicts.

It’s a long-shot bill; there’s been no appetite in this Republican-controlled Legislature for derailing the gravy train.

And even if it were to move, the language would have to be very specific to assure that a lawmaker doesn’t land in court for inadvertent conflicts. Left too vague, it could become a political “gotcha” tool.

But imposing clear ethics rules that carry stiff penalties for violations is an essential step.

As Craig Mauger, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, told The Detroit News, “Right now it’s on the lawmaker to police themselves.”

Michigan needs to build more accountability and transparency into its ethical safeguards.

Lawmakers should not be taking trips, dinners and gifts from third parties, and if they do, at the least they should be required to give a detailed accounting of who paid, and why.

And they certainly shouldn’t be voting on bills from which they stand to profit.

Each time another hole is disclosed in Michigan’s embarrassing ethics rules citizens lose a bit more confidence in the integrity of the Legislature.

Moving Michigan from worst in the nation to first in terms of ethical standards should be a priority of the Legislature.