As much as Montanans would like to believe otherwise, it appears that Montana lawmakers are pretty much cut from the same political cloth as legislators elsewhere in the country, guilty of conflict-of-interest breaches and influence-peddling at rates comparable to—or greater than—those in statehouses across the nation. This according to a report released this week by the Center for Public Integrity, which looks at how lawmakers’ personal financial interests are affecting public policy decisions.
The report, “Our Private Legislators: Public Service, Personal Gain,” is the result of an unprecedented two-year study of state lawmakers in the 47 states that require public financial disclosures by elected officials. To no one’s surprise, the study found significant and pervasive private financial interests exerting influence on the laws and policies that were being enacted.
In Montana, the study revealed that 23 percent of state legislators sat on committees that regulated the profession or business interest they were personally engaged in. Ten percent, meanwhile, had financial ties to businesses or organizations that lobby the Legislature, and nearly one in four received income from another government agency that the Legislature either regulates or funds directly. These rates were close to or above the national average.
“We knew that it would probably be quite stunning when we looked at legislatures, but I don’t think anyone thought we would find as much self-dealing and conflict-of-interest situations as we did,” says Charles Lewis, founder and executive director of the Washington-based Center for Public Integrity and a former investigative journalist. “It makes us look twice outside the beltway, around the heartland, and realize that some of the most outrageous corruption in politics today is not just happening in Washington, it’s happening in states across America.”
The authors of the study admit that the stories included in the state-by-state breakdown are anecdotal in nature and do not necessarily represent the most egregious conflicts or potential conflict-of-interest situations. Nor, they say, do they imply illegalities or explicit ethics violations. That said, however, the Montana report singled out several area lawmakers from the 1998 Legislature, including Sen. Dale E. Berry (R-Hamilton) and Rep. Cliff Trexler (R-Hamilton) for their introduction of bills that could have been construed as beneficial to their own real estate businesses.
The Center for Public Integrity, a non-partisan educational organization which neither endorses nor opposes policy decisions, has released more than 40 such reports since it was founded in 1990. It is perhaps best known for breaking the story about the use of the White House Lincoln bedroom as a “bed-and-breakfast” stop for high-dollar campaign contributors, and for its revelations about how big money influenced the passage of NAFTA and the defeat of President Clinton’s Universal Health Care bill.