CASUAL CONFLICTS

ARIZONA LAWMAKERS OPERATE UNDER A SYSTEM INCAPABLE OF STEMMING CONFLICTS OF INTEREST.

Landlord, speech pathologist, realtor, rancher--none is in a class of ten or less. And yet each stood to gain from the passage of the bill he or she brought before the legislature.

Who needs AzScam, asks Dana Larsen, chairman of the board of Arizona Common Cause, when nests can be feathered--legally--on a daily basis?

"I think the way the system works, it doesn't take that kind of overt bribery. And the rules are lax enough where people do vote in their financial interest," he says.

When questioned about possible conflicts of interest, lawmakers are lightning-quick to point out that they have no conflicts--under the law. Further, they say, they shouldn't be hampered in their abilities to represent the people.

"If we're gonna get the full benefit of the citizens' legislature, we need to have the people with the expertise to speak out," Bob Burns says.

And so our citizens' legislature is left to police itself, each member to make the judgment call on his or her behavior. The results vary crazily. For example, Senator Matt Salmon, Republican-Mesa, an employee of U S West Communications, recused himself from voting on an omnibus tax bill that included a break for utilities, while Senator John Huppenthal, Republican-Chandler, and representatives Art Hamilton and Chris Cummiskey, Democrats-Phoenix--who have financial links to Salt River Project (Huppenthal and Hamilton are employees of the company; Cummiskey's wife works for SRP)--voted on the legislation.

Who was wrong? Nobody, technically. Salmon is allowed to ask for the excuse, and because they are part of a large class of utility workers, neither Cummiskey nor the SRP employees is breaking the law.

The difference is that Salmon, a candidate for Congress, has a heightened awareness of the perception of conflicts.

Dana Larsen says Arizona's conflict-of-interest law makes no sense. "The rules are so vague and so flexible that you could drive a truck through them," he says.

But on a national scale, Arizona's government-ethics laws measure up just fine, says William Pound, executive director of the National Conference of State Legislators. Pound maintains that Arizona's conflict-of-interest law doesn't need to be tougher; instead, the burden to ferret out conflicts rests with the media and the public at large.

"I'm not sure there is any really good way to enforce it [a standard for conflicts of interest]. I'm not sure there should be, other than the electorate--you know, the ballot box," he says.

Apparently, that's what it will take, because in Arizona, most conflicts stay in a rumor mill exclusive to legislators, lobbyists and staff. Staff and lobbyists don't want to upset members, for obvious reasons. And lawmakers are prohibited from grousing about one another in public, unless they're willing to file a formal ethics complaint.

Sometimes, however, conflicts do make news. Then-Senate president Pete Rios, Democrat-Dudleyville, handed headlines to the daily newspapers in 1992 when he announced his intention to sponsor legislation that would benefit his wife, a school nurse. He acknowledged the appearance of impropriety, but said the public good was worth any flak he might take.

Gloria Rios, a nurse with the Apache Junction Unified School District, actually quit her job in the wake of a media-inspired uproar about the perceived conflict of interest. Her husband read her dramatic resignation letter on the floor of the Senate. The legislation, which allowed nurses with two- or three-year degrees to work as full-time school nurses without a four-year bachelor's degree, passed.

And, yes, Pete Rios admits, his wife returned to work the next fall.
Rios' case was an exception to the rule. More often than not, conflicts go unreported. Consider, for example, a bill crammed through the system last year by House Majority Leader Brenda Burns, Republican-Glendale (no relation to Bob Burns). This legislation, which expanded the scope of practice for optometrists, benefited Burns' husband--an optometrist--just as directly as Rios' bill benefited his wife. Yet the public never learned of her conflict.

When optometrists finally won their decadelong battle in 1993, the Arizona Republic dutifully listed campaign contributions made by the optometry industry to supporters of the legislation.

But in attempting to draw the conclusion of influence, the state's largest daily overlooked the obvious: Brenda Burns, who fought for the optometry expansion behind the scenes and who cast her vote in favor on the House floor, is married to an optometrist. Not surprisingly, Brenda Burns also topped out the Republic's list of optometric contributees.

The legislation, which allowed optometrists to use topical drugs and remove foreign objects from patients' eyes, was ultracontroversial. It was tacked onto another optometry-related bill and navigated through legislative channels so quickly that some lawmakers later swore they didn't know what they were supporting. In the House, the measure passed by just one vote--Brenda Burns' vote.

One of Burns' GOP House colleagues--who also holds a leadership post--was stunned by Burns' blatant lobbying on behalf of the optometrists. "It's a good example of what happens when you get in the pitch of battle," he says. "There was a lot of arm-twisting that went on with this one." Like Bob Burns, Brenda Burns holds a position that gives her additional leverage on particular bills, the GOP leader says. But Brenda, he insists, is even more aggressive than Bob.

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