States Wrestle with Political Ethics Lobbyists Are Often Criticized, but Drawing Up a Code to Restrict Lawmakers Can Be Difficult

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DEFINING and ensuring ethical behavior in public office is as much a current concern around the nation's statehouses as it is in Congress. At the National Conference of State Legislators here last week, a workshop on ethics found no consensus on issues ranging from campaign contributions to honorariums.

"It gets gray and murky," says Robert Garton, president pro tem of the Indiana Senate. During his 10 years in office, Mr. Garton has been especially sensitive to ethics issues: Two of his three predecessors, including the man he succeeded, went to prison.

Because of the uproar over influence cases like that of Charles Keating and five United States senators, legislators who get calls from constituents hesitate to take any action, Garton says. Some efforts cited

Noting that "we just cannot legislate in a vacuum," he says there have been some efforts to insulate legislators from lobbyists. He notes that newspapers claim an "invisible wall" exists between the advertising and editorial departments, yet publishers won't give legislators credit for the ability not to let a vote be affected by "a contribution or a dinner or a lunch ... ," Garton says.

Several state efforts at ethics legislation were described during the workshop.

In New Jersey, there was "an outcry of major proportions" when a lobbyist disclosed that during the 1989 campaign, several legislators demanded contributions to ensure favorable votes. At that time, the state did not limit the amount or origin of campaign contributions, says Albert Burstein, chairman the New Jersey law revision committee.

Then a series of newspaper articles investigating senior legislators found more evidence of lobbyists unduly influencing bills. This cemented "the public perception of state legislators being on the take or subject to undue influence, all related to money," Mr. Burstein says.

New Jersey called in a panel of academic experts to suggest ethics-related measures. They proposed a $1,500 limit on contributions from individuals, $5,000 from political-action committees, and $5,000 from candidates in safe districts.

"Most New Jersey districts are not hotly contested," Burstein says. But to avoid a pro-incumbency bias in tight races, state and local committees would have an unlimited right to contribute. …