Ethics watch

Dec 8, 2004 at 12:00 am

Ethics in Michigan? Not our strong suit. In fact, the Center for Public Integrity recently gave Michigan’s state Legislature an “F” for scoring 0 out of 100 points when it comes to requiring state lawmakers to report their outside sources of income: Who they work for, who their wives work for, businesses they own, employers, boards they sit on, etc. Turns out that Michigan, ranked last nationwide, is one of only three states with absolutely no requirement for lawmakers to divulge how they make a living. Only Idaho and Vermont have similarly lax reporting laws — and they’re small states with legislatures that meet part-time, for three to four months a year, unlike Michigan’s full-time body.

Still worse, Michigan legislators refused or declined to cooperate with the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit CPI, an organization that studies and investigates government, for the report.

“We tried to get legislators to voluntarily provide information on their outside incomes, and we got about a dozen responses. It wasn’t easy to find things out about Michigan,” says Leah Rush, director of state projects for CPI.

State Rep. Steve Tobocman, a Democrat from southwest Detroit, hopes to change this. This week he’s introducing a bill to require that Michigan lawmakers file yearly financial disclosure reports.

“Conflicts of interest seem to regularly pop up when it comes time to vote on issues in the State House,” Tobocman says. “This is a way to make sure your representative is looking out for your interests, not his or her wallet.”

This might seem like an obscure issue, but take, for instance, state Rep. Steve Ehardt, R-Lexington. Ehardt was mentioned in the CPI report because he owns pharmacies and sponsored legislation this year to help pharmacies compete with mail-order companies.

The bill might have been a good and worthy measure, and Ehardt’s inside knowledge might’ve made him an expert on the matter. Nevertheless, Ehardt, who wasn’t available for comment, stood to benefit financially. Michigan lawmakers are expected to simply volunteer to abstain when a vote could benefit them directly, or when there could be a perceived conflict of interest.

“It surprises me that there aren’t very many abstentions on votes. There needs to be transparency,” says Rep. Paul Gieleghem, D-Macomb. Gieleghem introduced a bill similar to Tobocman’s in 1999 — when Michigan first flunked the CPI study. His bill went nowhere.

With the Legislature to go on break at the end of this week, Tobocman’s bill will die. But there are hopes for the next session, says Olga Savic, Tobocman’s chief of staff.

We’ll be watching.

News Hits is edited by Curt Guyette. Contact this column at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]