The issues now before the N.H. House ethics panel involving House Majority Leader Doug Ley, D-Jaffrey, demonstrate again the failings of the Legislature’s conflict of interest standards.
Ley is president of the New Hampshire chapter of the American Federation of Teachers, a paid position. The union has taken a stance on dozens of bills in the past couple of years, and Ley has often voted on or spoken out on that legislation, reflecting the union’s position.
A N.H. Public Radio report last month on legislative conflicts noted lawmakers rely on disclosure far more than abstention to relieve them of the obligation to appear impartial. So-called “declaration of intent” forms are used to reveal a lawmaker might benefit (or be harmed by) a bill. The forms, though, are not used in every case, and when they are, lawmakers seem to feel having filed it frees them to act in their own interest anyway.
“Over time, lawmakers appear to be filing these ‘declaration of intent’ forms less frequently — and the few who do disclose potential conflicts often do not recuse themselves from debating or voting on the bills in question,” NHPR wrote.
Ley should have filed disclosure forms for bills on which the union had taken a stand. Moreover, he should not vote on or advocate for any measures that benefit the union he represents. It’s simply not enough to say “I voted my conscience. It just happened to align with what the union wanted.”
Ley may have abided by the letter of the Legislature’s rules, but he’s wrong. Whether an official with a union that does business with the state can ethically take on the role of state lawmaker is debatable. Even if Ley feels he acted completely impartially in the matter and that his conscience is clear, such actions too easily lend themselves to the appearance of misbehavior. And the precedent makes it that much easier for the next lawmaker to do the same, perhaps with less altruistic intent.
Ley isn’t the first lawmaker to be scrutinized over a professional conflict. In 2013, then-Senate President Peter Bragdon of Milford resigned that title after a furor over his accepting a lucrative job with a major state lobbying organization, and he left the Senate a year later. Ley’s case appears to more closely resemble that of Rep. Greg Hill, R-Northfield, who last year sought an opinion from the ethics committee before taking a job with the Children’s Scholarship Fund. The panel said taking the job wouldn’t be a conflict, but he shouldn’t introduce legislation affecting the company, nor vote on or “attempt to influence” such bills. Hill turned down the job.
Ley may not have had any ill intent. But rules aren’t set in place for those who would do the right thing anyway; they’re made to deal with those who would take advantage to benefit themselves. When the principles behind those rules are broken, it undermines the public’s confidence in the Legislature and government. In fact, even if lawmakers appear to be doing something they shouldn’t, that dynamic applies.
And that’s the true value of ethics rules. To protect the integrity — both in fact and appearance — of those in office and the institution they serve.
Part of the state’s folksy “citizen legislature” image is the idea that among its 424 volunteer lawmakers come experts from many fields, each bringing his or her own experience, personal and professional, to the party. Therefore, lawmakers often argue it’s not only not a bad thing that they work in the field affected by their votes, but that it’s beneficial. Who better, they argue, to understand the ins and outs of a bill affecting auto sales than an auto dealer? Who would have more expertise in funeral home regulation than a mortician? Or, as Ley told NHPR: “We don’t want to disqualify people because of what they know and their knowledge base or their experience base.”
There’s an argument to be made there, but it’s a flawed one. No one should have that kind of outsized influence on the laws that directly affect their own livelihood and no lawmaker should be in a position of effectively being a lobbyist for an industry or organization. If expertise is needed to make clear the effects of a bill, then have experts testify. What you actually want is people voting who have no interest in the outcome other than good lawmaking.
Whatever the ethics panel decides on Ley, lawmakers need to be far more serious about setting real restrictions and less concerned with giving themselves the benefit of the doubt.
Ethics rules don’t exist to keep lawmakers from ever benefiting from a bill. They exist to ensure the public’s trust in what the government is doing. That trust is eroded if an official gives the appearance of acting improperly, regardless of how indignantly they avow their innocence.
At some point, the state needs to enact stricter policies on conflicts that go beyond filing paperwork outlining what their conflict is. If you feel you have to explain that it’s a potential conflict, then you shouldn’t be involved in legislation concerning it.