A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists

SDX Awards: Online, public service, The Center for Public Integrity

By Quill

In 2003, state legislators in capitals throughout the country passed more than 42,000 laws alone on issues ranging from healthcare to homeland security. The year before that, they spent more than $1 trillion in taxpayer money.

But state legislators work in environments ripe for conflicts of interest. Thirty-nine states have lawmakers who meet part time. When not in session, representatives pursue other careers, frequently ones regulated by the states.

States maintain weak procedures for gathering information on lawmakers to outside ties with internal programs, such as legal services, education, farming and oil. Three states, Idaho, Michigan and Vermont, have no procedures in place.

“But researchers at the Center for Public Integrity have taken the window-dressing off state ethics laws and placed detailed information on lawmakers’ private financial interests at the fingertips of the public,” said Leah Rush, director of state projects for The Center for Public Integrity.

“Personal Politics” features a one-of-a-kind database that allows reporters and citizens to search legislators’ private financial interests, including outside jobs, investments, directorships and closely held business interests by name, ZIP code, outside tie or industry.

In 2002, center researchers began collecting financial disclosure statements filed by almost 7,000 state lawmakers in the 47 states that require disclosure of possible conflicts of interests.

“From ordering the documents to scanning the filings to entering the data to coding the records by industry to building the Web site – every aspect of this project took up so much time,” said Rush. “Keeping the ‘to-do’ list straight over a two-year time period was a challenge.”

Major findings from the center’s report:

Eight states define reportable employment so narrowly that lawmakers can avoid disclosing huge sources of salaries and wages. Louisiana, for example, requires only reporting salaries earned from another government agency or gambling interest.

A dozen states don’t require legislators to report any of their real estate holdings.

In some states, spouses are virtually invisible. Twelve do not require legislators to say where their spouses are employed. Fifteen don’t ask for information about their investments and 20 exclude their property holdings from disclosure.

In September 2004, the release of “Personal Politics” prompted interests from more than 67 print publications and more than 10 radio/TV broadcasts. At least five states have improved their disclosure process since the report.

“The center’s one-of-a-kind work contributes mightily to a more informed citizenry that is better able to hold its leadership accountable,” said the judges. “The center’s work on this project is an outstanding example of public service in journalism.”