Conflicted Interests

Published — December 5, 2017

Meet 10 more lawmakers with entangled interests

Introduction

The Center for Public Integrity and The Associated Press found numerous examples of state lawmakers who have introduced and supported policies that directly or indirectly help their own businesses, their employers and their personal finances.

Nevada looked poised to join other states in limiting what is known as “civil asset forfeiture.” The practice allows police to seize cash and other goods if they believe they were involved in a crime, then keep the proceeds or share them with other law enforcement agencies, such as district attorneys’ offices. But the bill died this year, and some proponents of the reform blame Sen. Nicole Cannizzaro, a freshman Democratic legislator and a deputy district attorney for Clark County, who had sharp questions for the speakers who testified in favor of the bill. “It presents a clear conflict of interest,” said Lee McGrath, a lawyer for the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit that supported the bill. “It begs the question as to why there are not better recusal laws.” Cannizzaro declined to comment. Sen. Tick Segerblom, a Democrat who co-sponsored the bill, said he did not think Cannizzaro had a conflict. “We all bring to the table what we know, what our jobs are,” he said.
Louisiana state Rep. Paul Hollis sells rare coins — at one point hawking them overnight on a television shopping channel. In 2013, he successfully sponsored a sales tax break for rare coins and for gold, silver and platinum bullion. “This expansion just makes sense for Louisiana’s investors and dealers,” the Republican told Coin World, a trade publication. The exemption was done away with in the state’s budget crisis last year but restored in 2017 with Hollis’ help. He did not respond to multiple calls and emails requesting comment
In Pennsylvania, Sen. Camera Bartolotta, a Republican who leases nine acres to companies for gas drilling, has sponsored legislation over the past several years to clarify liability for fracking companies using treated mine water and to encourage fracking in Pennsylvania state forests. The senator said she asked for conflict-of-interest rulings regarding both proposals, and was given the all-clear in both cases. The mine water bill passed, and the state forest resolution remains pending.
Indiana House Speaker Pro Tempore Bill Friend is a pig farmer. In 2012, the Republican helped pass a bill awarding attorney’s fees to any farm dealing with a “frivolous” nuisance lawsuit — a law that animal rights advocates worried would discourage neighbors who otherwise might sue polluting farms. “The law does not uniquely benefit me personally or my business, and does not present a conflict of interest,” he said. “I put a high premium on integrity and transparency, and that’s why I have a record of supporting efforts to strengthen disclosure laws and protecting the public trust through updating Indiana’s ethics laws.”
Iowa state Sen. Tim Kraayenbrink this year spoke on the floor in April in favor of a bill that after it passed dramatically expanded the number of companies that could market retirement investments to Iowa educators. The Republican dismissed Democrats’ claims that the array of investments would be too confusing and allow companies to charge exorbitant fees on teachers’ savings. Kraayenbrink didn’t mention directly that he would be one of the advisers who stand to benefit from access to new customers in the program. He is the owner of Kraayenbrink Financial in Fort Dodge and now manages about $150,000 in retirement savings from seven educators in the program, which currently earns him around $400 in fees annually, he said in an interview. Kraayenbrink said it was such a small part of his income that he didn’t think he had a conflict of interest in voting on the bill. “It’s in the best interest of the client to have more choices and to have professional help if they want it,” he said.
Indiana House Speaker Pro Tempore Bill Friend is a pig farmer. In 2012, the Republican helped pass a bill awarding attorney’s fees to any farm dealing with a “frivolous” nuisance lawsuit — a law that animal rights advocates worried would discourage neighbors who otherwise might sue polluting farms. “The law does not uniquely benefit me personally or my business, and does not present a conflict of interest,” he said. “I put a high premium on integrity and transparency, and that’s why I have a record of supporting efforts to strengthen disclosure laws and protecting the public trust through updating Indiana’s ethics laws.”
In Pennsylvania, Sen. Camera Bartolotta, a Republican who leases nine acres to companies for gas drilling, has sponsored legislation over the past several years to clarify liability for fracking companies using treated mine water and to encourage fracking in Pennsylvania state forests. The senator said she asked for conflict-of-interest rulings regarding both proposals, and was given the all-clear in both cases. The mine water bill passed, and the state forest resolution remains pending.
As a New Hampshire state representative, Republican Joe LaChance in 2015 sponsored a bill to expand the number of people who could legally obtain medical marijuana at the same time he owned a cannabis consulting business. It did not pass. LaChance, who is no longer in the House, said he registered the name of the business, but said it never went any further and that he never received any income from it.
Last year, union members who previously worked at North Carolina state Sen. Brent Jackson’s vegetable farm sued him for back wages and other damages. In settlement negotiations, the workers initially tried to get the farm to hire only union members, but Jackson refused. This year, the Republican helped shepherd a wide-ranging farm law that ultimately contained two anti-union measures, including one invalidating any legal settlement that requires a farm to enter an agreement with a union. National Farm Worker Ministry Executive Director Julie Taylor filed an ethics complaint with the state, saying Jackson had a conflict of interest. But under the law, it isn’t one, according to the state’s Legislative Ethics Committee. The committee, a bipartisan group of House and Senate members, emphasized that the union restrictions applied to agreements or settlements in the future, not current ones that Jackson may be under. Jackson said he’s a strong believer in right-to-work laws because many constituents believe unionization is the biggest threat to the state’s agricultural industry.

Reporting by the Center for Public Integrity’s Liz Essley Whyte and David Jordan; The Associated Press’ Summer Ballentine, Ryan J. Foley, Michelle Price, Holly Ramer, Gary Robertson, Mark Scolforo, Brian Slodysko.

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