Ethical Lapses Spur Reforms in Legislatures ; as Questions about Conflicts of Interest Mount, States like Rhode Island Consider Making Lawmaking a Full-Time Job

Article excerpt

The American ideal of the disinterested citizen-legislator is losing its luster. From Washington State to Rhode Island, voters are taking a closer look at how part-time lawmakers balance public responsibilities and private interests.

It's tradition for Americans from varied backgrounds and professions to leave behind their regular duties, like the mythical Cincinnatus and his plow, and serve for a short time as lawmakers. Today, lawmakers in 40 of the nation's 50 state legislatures spend part of the year carrying out the people's business, and the rest of the year running their own.

Here in Rhode Island, the legislators serve only six months of the year. Many are lawyers. Some are teachers, doctors, and firefighters. But, unlike Cincinnatus, not all are leaving their work behind when they step into the statehouse - which is making Rhode Island a flash point in the debate over lawmakers and conflicts of interest.

Last month, three legislators here, including the Senate president and House majority leader, were accused of ethics violations. Their alleged transgression: consulting for businesses that stood to benefit from their legislative work.

The lawmakers technically did not break any rules, but news of their close business ties has prompted outcries from residents weary of ethical misconduct by CEOs and elected officials alike.

A recent uptick in public scrutiny of legislators' financial dealings is evident across the country, say experts. They see the public as raising its standards of behavior for state officials, which could soon pressure legislatures to professionalize and cast aside one of their most cherished traditions.

"People are very negative toward their politicians now, and part of that is the result of part-time legislators getting caught," says Alan Rosenthal, a public- policy professor at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

The scandal here unfolded after the Providence Journal published information about a legislator's ties to the CVS Corp. Soon after, questions surrounding the ethical behavior of other legislators surfaced. One received $70,000 from CVS, only one year after having led an effort to defeat legislation the company opposed. Though not illegal, it does raise serious conflict-of-interest questions.

Even in a state notorious for political corruption, the latest revelations are causing an unusually public furor. "We need more accountability for our legislators," says Bill Sheridan, browsing at the Providence Shopping Mall recently.

Many experts believe the key to doing that in Rhode Island, and elsewhere around the country, is making lawmaking a full-time profession. …