Readers of Inside Politics may remember discussions of ethics last January and October. Significant conversations in D.C. and Idaho continue regarding the need to “follow the money” in politics. It’s an axiom in almost any investigation of political cronyism, crime, corruption, influence peddling, etc.. Money, after all, is one of the largest motivations for human behavior in monetary societies.
The axiom could be generalized to “follow the benefits.” There are many potent enticements beside money. There’s lust, power, revenge and hate, to name just a few. But let’s focus on money and simply remember ethical violations are driven by many enticements. Non-monetary enticements, however, are tougher to “see” and harder still to prove.
The importance of having strong enforceable codes of ethics and rules of conduct (especially financial disclosure) is to stay ahead of the flow of corrupting money, rather than needing to sniff it out after ethical breaches occur. “After the fact” often means irreversible benefit or damage. In the context of government both are miscarriages of justice that violate a sacred trust.
Idaho and Michigan are the only states without financial disclosure laws for legislators and other elected officials. Both states have Republican governors and strong Republican majorities. You may remember that Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder has been reproached for disempowering duly elected local officials and installing emergency administrative mangers in several financially distressed communities. Criticism mounted stemming from persistent accusations of cronyism and prioritizing financial triage over individual rights and human well being. Idaho’s politics have also been peppered with accusations of cronyism. Just Google “Idaho cronyism” if you don’t believe me.
Among its first actions in 2018’s legislative session, Idaho’s GOP leadership contemptuously and unceremoniously squashed the unanimous recommendation of a bipartisan commission to introduce thoughtfully crafted legislation requiring financial disclosure by Idaho candidates and holders of elected office. Idaho’s Democratic Party, by contrast, has consistently pushed for financial disclosure and better ethics rules for years.
The Idaho Republican Party’s cynical stonewalling of Democratic efforts was verified by Zach Hague, Lt. Gov. Brad Little’s campaign manager. Idaho Statesman’s Cynthia Sewell reported that Hague explained Little’s 2007 vote against financial disclosure legislation was simply because it was “brought by Democrat leadership.” Wow. So much for integrity and putting the interest of Idaho and its citizens first.
Rep. Christy Zito, R-Hammond hyperbolically proclaimed 2018’s proposal was Orwellian! I don’t know if she was hyperventilating at the time.
Some advice, Rep. Zito: Don’t ever apply for a federal management position. Even though they aren’t elected officials they annually submit OGE form 450.
It requires far more detailed disclosure than Idaho’s proposed legislation. Also, its equivalent has been around since well before 1984. I submitted one annually for decades, as do hordes of Idaho’s federal employees and tens of thousands across America. Again, readers, Google “OGE form 450” to see what financial disclosure looks like in the real world.
Rep. Vito Barbieri R-Dalton Gardens, never one to be out-bombasted, proclaimed such disclosure would put a target on elected officials’ backs. Perhaps he was making a plea for better gun control in Idaho. The truth is, virtually every American civil servant (except Idaho’s and Michigan’s) wear that target. To them, however, it’s a badge of courage, integrity and honor displayed with pride. Rep. Barbieri isn’t as prominent as Sean Hannity or Bill O’Reilly, whom he cited as examples of disclosure victimization. So, I have to assume he’s worried about disclosure for other reasons. Perhaps he just wants to protect his colleagues in the Legislature, probably Democrats, from the ravages of political demonization from unwarranted scrutiny.
Sadly, Idaho is an abysmal example of what openness in government and political ethics should not look like. If you read OGE form 450, its minimum standard is to avoid “even the appearance” of conflict of interest or misconduct. The failure of Idaho lawmakers to understand this, let alone embrace the concept, is, frankly, reprehensible. It’s why our overall government ethics rating from The Center for Public Integrity remains a scarlet D-. Most professional and academic codes of conduct are stronger than our Legislature’s. How can fellow legislators or the public demand that a representative recuse himself or herself from exercising influence over certain issues if there isn’t advance disclosure of potential affronts to integrity? Rather than trashing 2018’s draft ethics bill, our legislative leaders should demand an even stronger version than what was offered, in order to meet or compete with the ethics legislation in our nation. Instead, as is too often the norm for Idaho, GOP leaders seek the least accountability for themselves, their donors and their pet interests that they can get away with. Think: Ag-gag.
Disclosure requirements should be extended to all civil servants in middle management or higher echelons of Idaho’s government as well as to every appointed bureaucrat of any agency, board or advisory group. Any of these people could abuse their position to benefit themselves, wield unwarranted influence, or be obligated financially or otherwise to their political bosses.
Loans and real estate holdings should be disclosed. Immediate researchable online listings of all gifts and other emoluments should be the standard for our public officials and any influence-entities doing business with the government or attempting to sway legislation.
Citizens deserve real-time knowledge of these influences prior to casting their votes.
Integrity is a family value. We expect it of our children, our ministers, our lawyers, our spouses, our tradesfolk, our accountants, our physicians, our teachers, even our babysitters. Is it really reasonable to let our elected officials and civil servants just get by with minimum disclosure? Do you think that’s how it will work at the pearly gates?
We should commit Idaho to “stay ahead of the money” by requiring disclosure that is at least in parity with the rest of the nation.