Lawmakers in Virginia and Maryland operate in an environment rife with potential conflicts between their votes on public policy and their personal financial interests, and both states are among the worst in the nation when it comes to disclosing those conflicts publicly, according to a new national report.
In Virginia, close to 50 percent of the state's legislators have a personal financial stake in businesses or professions that are regulated by a committee on which they serve, the report by the Center for Public Integrity found. Only North Carolina and Kentucky have a higher percentage, the report says.
In Maryland, more than a third of the state's lawmakers or their spouses receive income from a state agency that is funded by the legislature. And in Virginia, 40 percent of the lawmakers have a financial tie to a business or group that is registered to lobby the General Assembly. Only in Texas is there a closer relationship between the legislature and lobbyists, the report says.
"We're trying to show there is an environment for these conflicts and make sure they know somebody is watching," said Leah Rush, the director of the nationwide study. "Legislators, when left to regulate themselves, it's more often than not that they will let things slide."
The study gave Maryland a "D" and Virginia an "F" for their records on disclosing information about financial conflicts to the public. "We know more about our toasters than we do our politicians, but we can get burned by both," Rush said.
The report, titled "Our Private Legislatures," documents the potential for conflicts of interest in all 47 states where lawmakers are required to disclose at least some personal financial information. Legislators in Idaho, Michigan and Vermont are not required to reveal any information.
Washington State and Hawaii earned near-perfect scores for disclosing vast amounts of detailed information about their lawmakers. Utah and New Hampshire scored at the bottom among the states that required some disclosure.
Lawmakers in Virginia and Maryland said they were surprised by the study's results, and they defended the conflict-of-interest rules that govern their assemblies.
"Maryland's disclosure requirements are more detailed than they are for the U.S. Congress," said Sen. Brian E. Frosh (D-Montgomery). "Should we have citizen legislators? Overwhelmingly the public thinks yes. They don't want people spending all year in the state Capitol."
Virginia Del. Brian J. Moran (D-Alexandria) agreed. Moran, chairman of the House Democratic caucus, said Virginia has been "free of these types of scandals" for years. Having part-time lawmakers has "pros and cons" he said. "This is one of the cons."
Both Virginia and Maryland have endured scandals involving lawmakers who were accused of violating conflict-of-interest rules.
In Maryland, a similar report by Common Cause this year identified 50 lawmakers who had introduced 127 pieces of legislation that affected their outside employers. That report, issued in January, also found 280 other instances in which lawmakers had signed on as co-sponsors to bills with the potential for a conflict.
"Our legislators are among the worst paid in the country for the hours they work, and they are the most dependent on their outside employers," said James Browning, the executive director of Common Cause of Maryland. "It puts them in a compromising position when the people in their district want one thing and their boss wants another."
Maryland Del. Elizabeth Bobo (D-Howard), an 11-year veteran of the House, said she, too, frequently sees examples of conflicts. She cited a debate over a bill to deregulate the electricity industry.
"If you're employed by one of the major public electric utilities and you're not only voting but in a key role for a bill that's going to deregulate that industry, how can that possibly not be a potential conflict?" she said. "We are kidding ourselves if we say they are not."
Bobo said that she was "disappointed" with Maryland's ranking in the new report and that she hopes the legislature will address the issue more forcefully soon. Bobo is an attorney by training but does not practice law. Her husband is retired.
"I am surprised that Maryland ranks as poorly as it does, and [I'm] concerned," she said. "I know legislators say these things don't get in the way. I'm not convinced of that."
In Virginia, one of the state's leading Republican senators, Thomas K. Norment Jr. (James City), was accused by a primary opponent in 2003 of championing legislation for the state's power company while holding tens of thousands of dollars in stock in the company. Norment denied that his actions were related in any way to his holdings.
Almost 20 years ago, the state's fourth most senior senator, Peter K. Babalas (D-Norfolk), was censured by his colleagues for promoting legislation that benefited one of his law clients.
That case, which dragged on for years, prompted intense debates in the late 1980s over how far Virginia law should go in outlawing conflict of interest by state legislators. In 1986, the Senate killed a bill that would have exempted lawmakers such as Babalas from criminal prosecution.
Moran said he would support legislation to tighten the conflict-of-interest rules.
"You don't want to wait until there's a scandal," he said. "You want to avoid losing confidence with the public."
The Center for Public Integrity is a nonprofit tax-exempt organization that conducts investigative research on public policy issues. The data for the study comes mostly from disclosure reports filed by lawmakers in 2003 for calendar year 2002, Rush said. She said the center will continue to update the information annually.
"Having people be able to access the information," she said, "that's really the goal."