States Wrestle With Political Ethics

Lobbyists are often criticized, but drawing up a code to restrict lawmakers can be difficult

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.

To better track which interest groups might be trying to exert influence, it was recommended that candidates collect not only donor's names but occupational information. The panel also called for financial disclosure to include names of those with whom the candidates do business. Burstein thought that was going too far: ``Invasion of privacy is one of the deterrents to getting quality candidates.'' Illinois efforts lag

Ethics measures advocated for Illinois by the lobby Common Cause were not enacted this year. ``Illinois has never been a leader in openness or good government,'' says John Manske, executive director of Common Cause in the state.

Nonetheless, both gubernatorial candidates made an ``ethics package'' part of their campaigns. It will be up to Gov.-elect Jim Edgar ``to ensure that Illinois moves into the 20th century,'' says Mr. Manske, a former maverick legislator in Wisconsin.

Manske says Illinois should adopt:

Comprehensive financial disclosure for candidates, their spouses, and children.

A workable and enforceable ethics code. It should disqualify them from actions that would result in personal gain, forbid accepting gifts, and ban nepotism.

An independent enforcement commission. Public officials may have a motivation to overlook the laws. ``Believe me, in Illinois at least, the overlooking occurs a lot,'' Manske says.

Wisconsin has a very tough ethics law, says Thomas Basting Sr., a lawyer who served as special prosecutor in state lobby law investigations. Public officials may not accept meals, travel, or gifts offered because of their position.

And lobbyists may not offer anything of value to a public servant unless it's offered to the public on the same basis. Lobbyists must submit an inventory of all their lobbying efforts, including money spent, broken down by bill number, veto, or other action sought.

Wisconsin's ethics board is nonpartisan. Its members cannot belong to a political party or work in state or public office, Mr. Basting says. Officials who seek and rely on the board's advice on ethical matters are immune from later prosecution.

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