What part of "conflict of interest" do Montana legislators fail to understand?

An excellent series of stories by Lee Montana statewide reporter Jayme Fraser last week revealed that in many cases, the answer seems to be the parts about voting for self-benefit, and about disclosing their financial interests to the public. And they can act with impunity because of toothless complaint processes and laws.

This all needs to change.

Arrogance? You bet.

State Sen. Roger Webb of Billings said he and his wife Peggy, a state representative, had received emails and voice messages from people who accused them of abusing their power by pushing 15 bills in the last session to tilt laws about rental properties in favor of landlords. The Webbs own several such properties.

"I'm going to guess they probably didn't vote for me anyway. I don't care," he said.

One of the reasons Webb and his colleagues have the luxury of not caring about members of the public complaining about their ethics is the fact that there is no clear route for citizens wishing to file formal complaints against legislators.

The Commissioner of Political Practices is empowered to investigate accusations of ethical breaches against the governor and other state officials. Legislators? Not so much.

Also, rules for Montana's citizen Legislature disregard the ethical dangers inherent in voting on legislation that can directly affect a legislator's livelihood. This is presented as a plus -- that the specialized knowledge people like doctors, teachers and lawyers have makes them the best possible people to work on legislation affecting them and their fellow professionals.

Perhaps, in the abstract. But in the real world many such experts will craft legislation or cast votes to benefit themselves.

And, in Montana, that's not illegal -- as long as the legislation benefits a larger group of people, it's perfectly OK if the group of beneficiaries includes one or more legislators.

It's no wonder the Center for Public Integrity, which has thoroughly examined ethics rules in all 50 states -- gives Montana an "F" for its conflict disclosure laws.

Moreover, the disclosure form all legislative candidates are supposed to fill out, detailing financial ties that could become conflicts, often gets ignored or only partially filled out, and there is no mechanism to police candidates and legislators to ensure their compliance.

Legislative candidate David Lewis of Billings in 2012 wrote "none of your business" or "NYOB" on each line of the state disclosure form.

Lewis said he views the form as an attempt by the government to control who is elected, and a mechanism to help political parties do attack ads.

"I don't need to make the job easier for anyone. I don't need to expose myself," he said. "How do these things help protect the public anyway? They don't."

We believe that if you are running for public office, the public trust inherent in that role is important. The "public" part of "public servant" means that those in politics by definition sacrifice privacy. The public is entitled to ask questions of them and is also entitled to know, in broad brush, their financial interests that could become conflicts.

If you don't want to share that information, simple. Don't run for office.

Montana should take immediate steps to toughen financial disclosure requirements and enforcement; to crack down on self-interest voting; and to make it easy and effective for citizens to file ethics complaints against legislators.

Good government demands nothing less.

This editorial has been updated to clarify that the David Lewis quoted was a Billings legislative candidate, not former Helena Sen. Dave Lewis.

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