Traverse City Record-Eagle

Op-Ed Columns

March 25, 2012

Jack Lessenberry: Little reason to trust state's elected officials

Everyone knows that economically speaking, Michigan has been one of the most distressed states in the nation.

But what about issues of ethics? Government accountability? Transparent and open campaign finance and lobbying laws?

Guess what? We're among the nation's worst.

The Center for Public Integrity last week released a nationwide study that looked at the risk of corruption in every state. Michigan was one of the eight states receiving an F, or failing grade.

What may be even sadder is that state officials didn't seem much concerned.

Gov. Rick Snyder, who was in Europe, has in fact called for improving financial disclosure standards. But his communications director felt legislators had "other things on their plate." Michigan didn't flunk every category in the survey. The state got high marks, in fact, for its internal auditing procedures, and a decent grade for an above-board procurement process.

But the state failed almost everything else. Rich Robinson, head of the non-partisan, nonprofit watchdog group the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, remembered that one local candidate used to have the slogan "No worse than the rest."

"But we are worse than the rest," Robinson said, adding with a bit of black humor, "We could call it, 'Michigan Exceptionalism.'"

Michigan racked up failing grades in everything from state pension fund management to redistricting, legislative, executive and judicial accountability, campaign financing and lobbyist disclosure.

The study was a joint effort by the center, Public Radio International and Global Integrity, a worldwide watchdog group.

The report noted that Michigan has no laws requiring elected officials to disclose their assets or investments or their financial entanglements. That caused one longtime Lansing journalist to quip that Michigan's motto should be the "Trust Us State."

But there seems to be little reason for trust. Three years ago, former state Attorney General Mike Cox found that over a six-year period, there wasn't one case in which a Michigan state senator abstained from a vote because of a conflict of interest.

The Michigan Campaign Finance Network has been particularly concerned with the state's abysmal requirements for reporting campaign spending. Political groups can pretty much get around any reporting requirements by giving money for "issue oriented" ads.

As a result, over the last decade, nearly $70 million worth of campaign ads have been produced and aired, with no disclosure requirements whatsoever, Robinson said.

"It appears that we are living with an honor system in an environment where there isn't much honor," he added.

So what changes he would recommend the Legislature make? First of all, finding a way to compel disclosure of the issue-oriented ads. "This loophole is hiding a greater volume of political spending than the campaigns are reporting," he said.

Next, "reporting of lobbyists' spending needs to be more complete. (Last year) lobbyists reported spending $776,000 for food/beverage/travel," for legislators. "Only one-third of that amount identified a recipient of the benefit. That's way too loose."

Elected officials ought to be required to make personal financial disclosure statements as well, he said, at least within a range. As of now, only Idaho, New Hampshire and Michigan don't do this.

"This isn't about nosing around. This is about putting interests on the record to identify conflicts, and to give a benchmark," so sudden big suspicious changes can be detected.

Rich Robinson would also like officeholders and top officials banned from leaving government and immediately taking jobs as lobbyists. He'd impose a one-year waiting period. He'd also prevent those selling goods and services to the state from hiring those who give them contracts for at least a year.

Some legislators have indicated a willingness to fight for regulatory reform, notably Democratic floor leader Kate Segal, of Battle Creek. But her party is heavily outnumbered.

Majority Republicans mainly have shown little interest in such reform. State Rep. Peter Lund, R-Shelby Township, the chair of the House elections committee, told the Detroit News he doubted that most voters are interested in ethics reform.

"When I talk to constituents, they talk to me about jobs," he said.

Robinson sees it slightly differently. He said he has been playing cribbage with an old buddy since the 1960s. "He says he trusts me, but he always cuts the cards."

Jack Lessenberry, who teaches journalism at Wayne State University, is Michigan Radio's senior political analyst, ombudsman and writing coach for the Toledo Blade.

and former foreign correspondent for and executive national editor of The Detroit News.

He was named Journalist of the Year in 2002 by the Metropolitan Detroit Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists.

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