The Free Press, Mankato, MN

January 12, 2013

Our View: Tighten legislator disclosure law

The Free Press

— Current public disclosure laws that might highlight legislator conflicts of interests are “not particularly helpful to the public.”

So says Gary Goldsmith, the executive director of Minnesota Campaign Finance Board, the body charged with collecting legislator economic disclosure statements.

A recent news analysis by Minnesota Public Radio found that forms examined didn’t provide meaningful information that would disclose conflicts of interest. State Sen. John Marty, DFL, and longtime proponent of transparency in government, says the current law has “massive loopholes.”

Current laws governing economic interest disclosure remain lax and fail to require even the most basic information in particular on legislators who list their business as consultants and lawyers. They’re not required to disclose their client list or even what kind of consulting they do or what areas of law they work in.

So, a legislator could vote on legislation helpful to a client without the public ever knowing the difference.

The issue came to light recently when former House Human Services Reform Committee Chair Steve Gottwalt, a Republican from St. Cloud, took a job selling health insurance policies through a program he spearheaded through the Legislature. He was working for and with insurance companies that had lobbied for the measures.

All the while, his economic disclosure form only listed him as a consultant.

No one is really arguing that what Gottwalt did was illegal, but many have questioned the transparency of the conflict of interest rules.

Both sides are taking advantage the current lax disclosure system. The newly elected House Speaker, DFLer Paul Thissen, is an attorney with Lindquist and Vennum, but declines to provide information on clients. Former Republican Speaker Kurt Zellers lists his occupation as a public-relations consultant, but also doesn’t list clients.

These loopholes Marty describes as “massive” also create an unfair playing field among legislators who work for known employers. They must disclose who they work for and therefore are subject to more scrutiny.

Thissen told Minnesota Public Radio that sometimes the public must just take his word and that of other lawmakers that outside jobs aren’t conflicts. There will be few taxpayers willing to buy into that idea.

At a time when credibility and trust of legislators remains fairly low, we think the Legislature could do itself a favor and tighten up disclosure requirements and enforce reasonable rules that will help the public understand potential conflicts of interest legislators might face.