Montana Lawmakers with State Jobs Skirt Ethics Law

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Very few of the growing number of lawmakers taking state jobs appear to be complying with a largely forgotten ethics law requiring proof that such arrangements don’t lead to double-dipping, a survey by The Associated Press has found.

The law requires that legislators and other public officers who simultaneously hold two public jobs must report the amount received from each job. It is aimed at making sure they don’t get paid twice for the same working hours and requires the disclosure be made right after taking the second job and annually thereafter.

Penalties could be handed down, if formal complaints are filed over the matter.

Yet very few lawmakers disclose their second jobs. Nine sitting legislators have been hired under Democratic statewide elected officials or their appointees over the past four years.

“One of our concerns in a situation like that, would be possible conflicts of interest. Here you are elected to represent your constituency, but you are also being paid to do this other job,” said Mary Boyle, with the Washington, D.C.-based watchdog group Common Cause. “I am sure there are instances, or there could conceivably be instances, where you have to make a choice about where your commitment is.”

Many more held public jobs before being elected, which has been less of a political issue since voters knew about their public employment before also electing them to office. Still, the ethics law says a “multiple public employment disclosure statement” is needed for all.

“The way I try to explain it simply is that there needs to be a public accounting of your time to make sure that you don’t get paid twice for the same hour,” said Dennis Unsworth, state commissioner of political practices.

Only two such reports were filed by lawmakers for 2008 — despite a growing list of legislators who also hold other public jobs — from Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s office on down to local government jobs.

Sen. Jesse Laslovich, D-Anaconda, reported his time spent last year working in the attorney general’s office. It included his salaries from each post, including $47,000 made at the attorney general’s office, along with statement saying he takes leave without pay from the state job when he conducts legislative business.

He was alone in meeting those benchmarks.

Rep. Cynthia Hiner, D-Deer Lodge, turned in a form for 2008 — but failed to disclose her salary or method of payment. She said she would comply with the policies but didn’t describe how. Hiner did not return a call Wednesday seeking comment.

Others holding two jobs skipped the form altogether. Those reached by the AP said they were unaware of the requirement.

“I don’t know that I have ever seen this E-1 form,” said state Sen. Mike Cooney, who also runs a Labor Department division. “After this call, I am going to be curious enough to go fill one out, for sure.”

Cooney was among a group of nine legislators criticized over the past few years for taking state jobs after being elected to office. But the criticism has not stopped the practice.

Just this week, Sen. Christine Kaufmann, D-Helena, began work as a $57,000-a-year policy adviser to state Auditor Monica Lindeen. Kaufmann has 15 days to file the initial compliance form, according to instructions.

More than a dozen states either ban or restrict lawmakers from also taking government jobs. Montana is among seven states that allow it as long as the legislator is not paid twice for the same hours and proves so with the compliance form.

Rep. Galen Hollenbaugh — a state employee long before being elected to the Legislature — said he is not purposely skipping out on the ethics report and takes great pains to keep the jobs and pay separate.

The Helena Democrat, also deputy chief of staff to the secretary of state, said he was surprised the political practices office hadn’t sent reminders on the issue.

“I should be aware of that, and I should file though,” he said. “It is an oversight on my part.”