Longform

CASUAL CONFLICTS

In March 1989, freshman Representative Robert "Bob" Burns, Republican-Glendale, was better known at the Arizona State Capitol as a lobbyist than as a lawmaker. Before his election to the House of Representatives, Burns, who then owned two child-care centers in the Valley, had been a ferocious advocate for the Arizona Child Care Association. He verbally pummeled anyone who pushed for tougher standards on private day care.

So when the issue arose about whether Burns should cast votes on legislation that directly affected the child-care industry--and his livelihood--Republican leadership suggested he consult the House Ethics Committee.

Erring on the side of caution, the Ethics Committee told Burns to recuse himself from the votes in question. Burns complied. But committee members made it clear that their decision in no way set a precedent for Burns or for any other member. In fact, the Ethics Committee members vowed they would reconvene to clarify the rules regarding conflicts of interest as soon as possible.

Fast-forward five years--past the Keating Five- and AzScam-fueled frenzy over legislative ethics--to the spring of 1994. Burns still owns a day-care center, and he's still considered more lobbyist than lawmaker.

Only now he's ascended to the helm of the powerful House Appropriations Committee.

"He's not only in the position of casting a vote, he is also in the position of determining whether a proposal moves forward that would provide money or would not," says House Minority Whip Debbie McCune-Davis, Democrat-Phoenix.

During the recently concluded legislative session, Burns did just that by refusing to hold hearings for the wildly popular Success by Six bill, legislation that would have appropriated almost $100 million for prenatal care, immunizations, child-abuse-prevention programs and preschool for poor children.

The bill had bipartisan support, with 59 sponsors in the House and the Senate and Governor Fife Symington's blessing, but as chairman of the Appropriations Committee, Burns had the power to stop the bill dead. Which he did. And while he insists to this day that his conscience--not his or others' day-care dollars--provoked his opposition, private day-care centers may well be winners in the end.

And not just with regard to the latest version of Success by Six. In discussions about a myriad of children-related bills this session, Burns "would interject issues regarding the private day-care centers . . . constantly," McCune-Davis says.

"To me," she concludes, "once he was elected, he should have stopped his lobbying behavior--not lobbied from inside the institution."
Burns is still waiting for the House Ethics Committee to reconvene (although he doesn't intend to request that it do so), and until it does, he says he sees nothing wrong with using his Appropriations Committee post as a bully pulpit for his favorite cause.

And while his lobbying on behalf of private day care--particularly in last spring's session--has at times left his opponents marveling at Burns' chutzpah and has made even his allies blush, he's most likely right when he says he's done nothing wrong. Legally wrong, that is.

@rule:
@body:Ironically, Bob Burns' position is strengthened by a law passed unanimously in 1992 by the Arizona State Legislature. The law was intended to tighten the conflict-of-interest reins on legislators in the wake of AzScam--the political-corruption sting in which lawmakers took bribes in exchange for their support of casino gambling. AzScam had nothing to do with professional conflicts of interest, but it brought an overall recognition of ethical dilemmas to the statehouse.

Under the law, state legislators are now included in a list of public officials who can be subjected to criminal and civil penalties for knowingly or unknowingly engaging in a conflict of interest.

But the law also defines conflict of interest so narrowly that it effectively exempts lawmakers under just about any conceivable scenario. To have a conflict, a legislator must belong to a group of less than ten people that would benefit directly by the law. For example, a public schoolteacher can vote for pay raises for schoolteachers, because more than ten people would be affected. If a bill pertained solely to, say, four science teachers at Central High School, a legislator who also happened to be a science teacher at Central High would be obliged to abstain from voting.

That means Burns, who is one of 1,500 licensed day-care providers in the state, isn't in violation of the law when he acts on legislation relating to day care.

Nor are the following legislators, just a handful of those who tried this year to get legislation passed that directly relates to their private interests:

Senator Lester Pearce, Republican-Mesa, a landlord, who sponsored legislation to make it much easier for landlords to evict tenants.

Representative Lisa Graham, Republican-Scottsdale, who sponsored a bill that would have licensed speech pathologists and audiologists, requiring them to have master's degrees. She is a speech pathologist with a master's degree.

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Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.