A recent possibility of a legislator receiving preferential treatment in public employment has focused attention on conflict of interest and public disclosure rules for our legislators. This is a subject that has received little public discussion recently. Some legislators believe that conflict of interest questions should be left up to each officeholder, but the only way that the public can learn whether a public official is swayed by personal interests, rather than by constituents, is through disclosure rules that are enforced.
Yet Minnesota is far more lax than other progressive states in the disclosure it requires of public officials. We were rated 28th in the nation in 2015 and assigned a grade of D- by a government watchdog group. Legislators need to earn a living while serving in the Legislature, of course. But the question is what the public needs to know about that, and an officeholder’s economic interests, to ensure that ethical choices are made.
The primary source of information for citizens is a Statement of Economic Interest that is filed annually by legislators and a number of other public officials. There is currently no requirement that a Statement be updated when circumstances change, so even the information required now may not be discoverable if it changes during a calendar year. The Statement requires disclosure of employment, a listing that describes the business if the official owns over 25 percent or more of the business, real estate owned in the state (other than homesteaded property), securities with a value over $10,000, and honorariums in excess of $50. Legislators are also supposed to disclose if they will be taking a vote that would affect the official’s financial interest, if the effect of the vote benefits the official more than others in the same business or profession.
Two additions to requirements considered
The Statements are filed with the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board, which makes them available to the public at its website and is responsible for ensuring that the filing is made. The board is considering two additions to the requirements. It will decide whether to recommend to the Legislature that direct interests in government contracts be disclosed. It also will look at whether beneficial interests in assets of another must be revealed.
There are important gaps in our disclosure requirements that do not exist in other states. For example, some 34 states require complete disclose of the financial interests of a spouse. About 30 states require disclose of gifts from those interested in legislation. Minnesota requires only disclosure of gifts from lobbyists and their principals. For example, Virginia prohibits legislators from accepting “any money, loan, gift, favor, service or business or professional opportunity that reasonably tends to influence him [sic] in the performance of his official duties.” Many states go much further. Washington State requires disclosure of creditors and positions held as a director or trustee. Oregon requires disclosure of any expenses paid to a legislator over $50 for a convention, fact-finding mission or other meeting.
The board sent a comprehensive proposed Public Integrity Law to the Legislature in 2014 that would have improved disclosure to the level of similar states. It would have defined a conflict of interest and explicitly prohibited a legislator from using his or her office for personal gain. It clarified that income as an independent contractor must be disclosed as well as clients or customers if gross receipts exceeded $2,500 with certain exceptions. Gifts and expenses over $100 would have been disclosed and the list of relatives affected was expanded. Amendment of a Statement was required within 30 days of a change to the original filing. Unfortunately the board’s proposal was met with silence at the Capitol.
Some of the omissions in Minnesota law, such as spousal interests and gifts, are so obviously potential conflicts of interests that their omission is an embarrassment. A legislator or other public official cannot reasonably be expected to overlook a gift from an interested person or the effect on a spouse’s employment. Likewise, the board’s current considerations, contracts with others and interests beneficial to the officeholder are clearly linked to a possible conflict of interest.
It’s difficult for the Legislature to regulate itself. But it’s time to dust off the proposed Pubic Integrity Law and it’s time for us to provide some needed encouragement to our legislators. We are entitled to this information to ensure that our legislators act ethically.
George Beck is chair of Minnesota Citizens for Clean Elections and a former chair of the Minnesota Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board.
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