By Mike Mullen
Fewer and fewer Americans have faith in the integrity of the legislative process in Washington, D.C. Recent investigations have uncovered the frequency with which legislators use their insider knowledge to profit using timely maneuvers with their stock holdings; on July 10, the House Ethics committee voted to move forward with an investigation into whether Nevada Rep. Sheila Berkeley used her influence to protect her husband’s business interests.
But political power wielded for selfish interest exists just outside the Beltway, too. In neighboring Maryland and Virginia, the State Integrity Investigation uncovered a lax system of oversight on the conduct of state legislators. Both states were found lacking in the requirements and enforcement of state legislators’ conflict of interests, which present the obvious threat of legislators setting state policy and spending taxpayer money in order to line their own pockets.
Among the factors contributing to Maryland’s 57 percent ‘F’ grade in the Legislative Accountability category was the lack of public access to legislators’ disclosure forms. While state reporter Christian Bourge confirmed that there was a law guaranteeing citizens the right to review disclosure forms, the only way to get them was prohibitively expensive and inconvenient.
“A trip to the Maryland Ethics Commission is required to access all government asset disclosure forms and the agency alerts the [legislator] of any request for their form,” Bourge wrote.
This obstacle to access was created by the state’s slow movement on putting legislators’ asset disclosures online for public review. Finally this year, the legislature made a move toward greater transparency: Thanks to a bill pushed by Senator Jamie Raskin, legislators’ disclosure forms will be available online by the beginning of 2013.
“The problem is that we are a part-time legislature, and we are in for just 90 days a year," Raskin told State Integrity Investigation partner station WAMU. "Which means for most of us, the General Assembly is not our primary source of livelihood, it's not our primary employment."
Virginia, which received a 49 percent ‘F’ grade for Legislative Accountability, has made no such progress. In fact, in terms of online citizen access, the state has abdicated responsibility to the nonprofit Virginia Public Access Project, which provides legislative disclosure forms free online.
Those forms are particularly important in a state like Virginia, with its shorter legislative terms of only 45 or 60 days meaning that nearly every legislator has additional sources of revenue and full-time employment outside the statehouse. The state’s reluctance to grant the public access to asset disclosures is coupled by its own disinterest in reviewing them. State reporter Laura LaFay gave Virginia a 0 percent score on an indicator assessing whether conflict of interest forms were audited.
“Legislative branch asset disclosure forms are not audited by any entity,” LaFay wrote. “They are simply filed with the Secretary of the Commonwealth where they remain, unmolested by auditors, indefinitely.”
Here are the full rankings and grades for states in the Legislative Accountability category, along with the states' overall grades. Click through the states for more information, including reporting comments and sources.