State Del. Dan Morhaim talks to reporters on March 3, 2017, after the Maryland House of Delegates voted unanimously to reprimand him for using his position to advocate for changes to medical marijuana regulations that could have led to gains for a company he worked for. Brian Witte/AP

Conflicted Interests: State lawmakers often blur the line between the public’s business and their own

Investigation found many examples of legislators supporting bills that benefited their employers, their companies or even their own wallets

By Liz Essley WhyteThis email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  &  Ryan J. FoleyThis email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Story and images courtesy of The Montana Free Press

(Editor’s note: This story was produced and published by the Center for Public Integrity. It is reprinted here by permission.) 

A recent change in Iowa’s tax code spared Mark Chelgren’s machine shop, welding company and wheelchair-parts plant from paying sales tax when buying certain supplies such as saws and cutting fluid.

The change passed by the state Legislature last year wasn’t just good for Chelgren’s businesses. It was brought about in part by Chelgren himself. The Iowa state senator championed the tax break for manufacturing purchases as part of his work at the Statehouse in Des Moines.

Chelgren isn’t the only state lawmaker doing his outside interests a favor. A North Dakota legislator was instrumental in approving millions of dollars for colleges that also are customers of his insurance business. A Nevada senator cast multiple votes that benefited clients of the lobbying firm where he works. Two Hawaii lawmakers involved with the condominium industry sponsored and voted for legislation smoothing the legal speed bumps their companies navigate. And the list goes on.

State lawmakers around the country have introduced and supported policies that directly and indirectly help their own businesses, their employers and sometimes their personal finances, according to an analysis of disclosure forms and legislative votes by the Center for Public Integrity and The Associated Press.

The news organizations found numerous examples in which lawmakers’ votes had the effect of promoting their private interests. Even then, the votes did not necessarily represent a conflict of interest as defined by the state. That’s because legislatures set their own rules for when lawmakers should recuse themselves. In some states, lawmakers are required to vote despite any ethical dilemmas.

Many lawmakers defend even the votes that benefit their businesses or industries, saying they bring important expertise to the debate.

Chelgren said the Iowa tax changes were good policy and that his background running a manufacturing business was a valuable perspective in the Statehouse.

“We have way too many people who have been in government their whole lives and don’t know how to make sure that a payroll is met,” the Republican said. He said the tax change had only a negligible effect on his business, saving it a few hundred dollars a year.

Iowa Senate rules say lawmakers should consider stepping aside when they have conflicts if their participation would erode public confidence in the Legislature. That’s a step one local official said Chelgren should have taken, especially since the tax change costs the state tens of millions a year in revenue.

“We have to keep the public’s trust,” said Jerry Parker, the Democratic chairman of the Wapello County Board of Supervisors in Chelgren’s district. “If they see us benefiting financially from votes that we make, the perception is bad for all elected officials.”

There’s no shortage of support for the “citizen legislature” concept that operates in most statehouses — that lawmakers should not be professional politicians, but instead ordinary citizens with day jobs. The idea is that those lawmakers can better relate to the concerns of their constituents and bring real-world experience to making policy.

Forty states have governing bodies that the National Conference of State Legislatures considers less than full-time. Those lawmakers convene for only part of the year and rely on other work to make a living.

To assess lawmakers’ outside employment, the Center for Public Integrity analyzed disclosure reports from 6,933 lawmakers holding office in 2015 from the 47 states that required them. Most legislators reported outside work except in California and New York, where the office is considered full-time and pays relatively high salaries — $104,118 and $79,500 per year, respectively.

The Center found that at least 76 percent of state lawmakers nationwide reported outside income or employment. Many of those sources are directly affected by the actions of the legislatures. By comparison, members of Congress have faced sharp restrictions on moonlighting since 1978.

“When you have a citizen legislature, there’s nobody you can find, just pull someone off a street, who at the end of the day wouldn’t have some type of conflict.”

– Sen. Tick Segerblom, Nevada lawmaker

The financial information lawmakers disclose about outside work varies widely from state to state. In Illinois, the disclosure forms are derisively labeled “none sheets” for the answer that invariably follows most questions about economic interests and potential conflicts. Idaho, Michigan and Vermont do not require lawmakers to disclose their financial interests. Vermont passed a law this year to do so starting in 2018.

Ethics rules often allow members to participate in debates and even vote when they have a potential conflict. Recusal is frequently up to the lawmaker.

Pennsylvania lawmakers who believe they may have a conflict of interest are required to ask their chamber’s presiding officer whether they should vote. In 30 instances in the Senate over a recent three-year period, every inquiry received the green light. One senator was approved to vote for his own mother’s nomination to a public board.

Two states, Utah and Oregon, require lawmakers to vote even if they have a conflict. California lawmakers can vote on legislation even after declaring a conflict of interest if they believe their votes are “fair and objective.” Many legislators say frequent abstentions would keep their chambers from working properly.

“We all bring to the table what we know, what our jobs are,” said Nevada Sen. Tick Segerblom, a Democrat. “When you have a citizen legislature, there’s nobody you can find, just pull someone off a street, who at the end of the day wouldn’t have some type of conflict.”

Muddied Motivations

Another Nevada lawmaker, Republican Sen. Ben Kieckhefer, voted at least six times this year to advance measures benefiting clients of the law firm where he works as director of client relations. In one case, he voted for a bill in committee that would have sped up a sales tax break for medical equipment, a measure backed by a client of his firm. At a hearing, he even asked questions of the lobbyist, a partner at his firm, with no mention of their association. The bill did not pass the full Legislature.

And last year, while his firm, McDonald Carano, was lobbying on behalf of the Oakland Raiders, Kieckhefer voted to approve $750 million in taxes to help build a stadium that would serve as the team’s new home in Las Vegas.

Kieckhefer, a former Associated Press reporter, said a firewall divides his firm’s lobbying from its legal work, the division where he works. He defended Nevada’s citizen legislature, which meets every other year and pays lawmakers $288.29 for every day of the session.

“I’m not reliant on support from lobbyists or special interests to keep the job I have to support my family,” he said.

Nevada law says that if legislators feel they have conflicts of interest, they must disclose them before voting. But for the Raiders stadium decision, Kieckhefer had no need to speak up: The Senate, in a historically unprecedented move, waived the normal conflict-of-interest provisions for the vote, a priority for Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval and wealthy casino magnate and political donor Sheldon Adelson, who later pulled out of financing part of the deal. The bill passed.

Ethics rules are some of many government policies that state legislatures get to write for themselves. Many, for instance, exempt their members from open records and meetings laws that apply to other agencies.

Some states are working to strengthen measures that would prevent conflicts of interest. Ballot initiatives for 2018 are underway in Alaska and South Dakota.

Maryland passed ethics reforms this year after the House of Delegates unanimously reprimanded Democratic Del. Dan Morhaim for acting “contrary to the principles” of Maryland’s ethical standards by not disclosing his work as a paid consultant for a marijuana company while he was working on marijuana policy.

“I have been clear from the beginning of this episode that I have done nothing wrong,” Morhaim said in an email. “The reprimand issued was for not following the ‘intent’ of the rules, a wholly new and undefined standard.”

Double Duty

In Hawaii, where condo owners say they feel outgunned at the Statehouse, Rep. Linda Ichiyama and Sen. Michelle Kidani, both Democrats, sponsored and voted for bills this year that their employers in condominium management had championed. Ichiyama is an attorney for a law firm that represents condo associations while Kidani works for a company that manages condominiums. The bills included a provision that critics say makes it easier for condo board members to re-elect themselves.

Then-House Speaker Joe Souki ruled Ichiyama had no conflicts and could vote, and Senate President Ron Kouchi said he did not remember ruling on any conflicts related to Kidani this session. Ichiyama did not return repeated phone calls or emails seeking comment.

“I follow the rules of the Senate, including voting on bills that may relate to my non-legislative employment,” Kidani said in an email. “Proposed bills are carefully read in order to determine whether there may be any conflict of interests raised.”

Other lawmakers have used public office to polish their day-job credentials. Rhode Island Sen. Stephen Archambault, a Democrat, has advertised his legislative work as a reason to hire him as a defense attorney in drunken driving cases: “Archambault literally wrote this law, and knows exactly what to do to succeed for you,” his law office website read until contacted by a reporter this fall. He did not return requests for comment.

In North Dakota, state Rep. Jim Kasper sponsored bills over the past decade that have provided millions in extra funding to the state’s five tribal colleges, whose operations are usually funded by the federal government.

Kasper, a Republican who owns a company that coordinates insurance benefits, has counted two of the colleges among the hundreds of clients he has had over the years. One has been his customer for nearly three decades.

He said he sponsored the bills because he cares about addressing unemployment near Native American reservations.

“Nothing was hidden,” he said. “I wouldn’t have done it if I didn’t feel it was the right thing to do.”

Republican Sen. Ben Kieckhefer of Nevada was one of several lawmakers who voted for measures benefiting his business or employer. Cathleen Allison/AP

Republican Sen. Ben Kieckhefer of Nevada was one of several lawmakers who voted for measures benefiting his business or employer. Cathleen AlliLawmakers don’t always choose to cast votes that benefit their private interests. West Virginia Senate President Mitch Carmichael, a Republican, voted for a bill this year to expand broadband internet competition that his company, Frontier Communications, lobbied against.

Within days, Frontier fired him, though it denies it was because of his vote. Spokesman Andy Malinoski said in an email that “market and economic conditions” led the company to eliminate several positions, including Carmichael’s.

Carmichael said citizen legislators frequently feel pressure from outside income sources but usually do the right thing.

“We often feel the influences of employment,” he said. “In my case, the net result is that I lost my job.”

Contributors include David Jordan and Joe Yerardi of the Center for Public Integrity; and Associated Press reporters James MacPherson in Bismarck, North Dakota, Audrey McAvoy in Honolulu, John O’Connor in Springfield, Illinois, Mark Scolforo in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Scott Sonner in Reno, Nevada, and Brian Witte in Annapolis, Maryland.

This story was co-published with The Associated Press.

 
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for ButteNews.net

by Tyler Morrison

 

Ah, gingerbread.

The smell of it baking, the taste of a gingerbread man, or the sight of a gingerbread house, conjures the holidays.  Memories float forward, bumping out our to-do lists, allowing sweet visions of childhood to pervade our minds.  It’s not just a number on a calendar that tells us the holidays are upon us.  It’s the aromas, tastes, and visual feasts that make them real. The tantalizing proposition of baking almond butter rings elicits a hint of the holidays, but it’s the distinct scent of gingerbread that makes it definitive.  Gingerbread has been embedded in our culture for centuries. And I am all about old school.

Gingerbread gets its name from the rather unattractive root “ginger.” In fact, the term gingerbread (from Latin zingiber via Old French gingebras) originally referred to preserved ginger. Gingerbread’s deep, rich color comes from molasses.  Made with a variety of spices, it can contain brown sugar, molasses, granulated sugar, honey, and/or light or dark corn syrup.

Ginger itself originated in jungles from the Indian subcontinent to Southern Asia where it grows in a wide variety of subspecies. An early export from Asia, ginger was a popular discovery to the ancient Greeks and Romans where Ginger shakers were often placed on the table along with those for salt and pepper and the word ‘ginger’ came to mean spices in general.

The ginger root has long been associated with myriad of health benefits and holistic medicines.  It has been thought to aid in digestion (soothing stomach aches), be an anti-inflammatory aid, help with menstrual cramps and morning sickness, fend off disease, and even relieve some of the nausea associated with motion sickness.  Some use it to relieve heartburn as well, although medical evidence seems to be inconclusive as to the validity of any actual medical benefits.

So where exactly did ginger meet the bread?  There seems to be almost as many theories as there are gingerbread men.  According to sugarcraft scholar Steven Stellingwerf, gingerbread may have been introduced to Western Europe by 11th-century crusaders returning from the eastern Mediterranean. Gingerbread was a favorite treat at festivals and fairs in medieval Europe-often shaped and decorated to look like flowers, birds, animals or even armor-and several cities in France and England hosted regular “gingerbread fairs” for centuries. Ladies often gave their favorite knights a piece of gingerbread for good luck in a tournament, or superstitiously ate a “gingerbread husband” to improve their chances of landing the real thing.

By 1598, it was popular enough to merit a mention in a Shakespeare play (“An I had but one penny in the world, thou shouldst have it to buy ginger-bread...”).

In Germany, gingerbread cookies called Lebkuchen have long been a fixture at street festivals, often in the shape of hearts frosted with sugary messages like “Alles was ich brauch bist du” (All I need is you) or “Du bist einfach super” (You’re really super). As far as I can tell, Germans also invented the concept of making gingerbread houses, probably inspired by the witch’s candy cottage in the fairy tale of Hansel and Gretel, two children who, abandoned in the woods by destitute parents, discovered a house made of bread, cake and candies. By the end of the century, the composer Englebert Humperdink wrote an opera about the boy and the girl and the gingerbread house.

Gingerbread is woven into the fiber of American history as well, its origins in the traditions of the many settlers from all parts of Northern Europe who brought with them family recipes and customs. By the nineteenth century, America had been baking gingerbread for decades.  George Washington’s mother, Mary Ball Washington, developed a recipe for Gingerbread Cake in 1784. Gingerbread was Abraham Lincoln’s ‘biggest treat’ and he invoked a gingerbread anecdote in his Lincoln-Douglas debates. With only a brief period of decreased popularity (‘witches’ used gingerbread men as voodoo dolls in the early 17th century), gingerbread has been a delicious part of our western culture for centuries.

American recipes usually called for fewer spices than their European counterparts, but often made use of ingredients that were only available regionally. Maple syrup gingerbreads were made in New England, and in the South sorghum molasses was used.

Regional variations began occurring as more people arrived. In Pennsylvania, the influence of German cooking was great and many traditional Germany gingerbreads reappeared in this area, especially at Christmas time. The North and Midwest of America welcomed the Northern and Middle Europeans. At Christmas it is still very common in the Midwest to have Scandinavian cookies like Pepparkaker or Lebkuchen. Often one can find wives holding "coffee kolaches" (coffee mornings) at which European ginger cakes still reign.

Nowhere in the world is there a greater repertoire of gingerbread recipes than in America-there are so many variations in taste, form and presentation. With the rich choice of ingredients, baking aids and decorative items the imaginative cook can create the most spectacular gingerbread houses and centerpieces ever.

 

 

for ButteNews.net

by Diane Larson

In 1891, Henry Holt and Company published a book by Jerome K. Jerome called Told After Supper. Told After Supper is a compilation of ghost stories that would be told on Christmas Eve. Jerome said, “Nothing satisfies us on Christmas Eve but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about specters.”

 

According to gothichorrorstoires.com, “That tradition of sitting around the fire and telling ghost stories at Christmas Eve predates the Victorian era.” In effect, telling ghost stories was as much a staple on Christmas Eve in Victorian Age as the arrival of Santa Claus is to us today.

 

By the Victorian Era, Christmas ghost stories were very popular. It was tradition “for a family to gather by the fireplace the night before Christmas to trade ghost stories,” according to knowledgenuts.com. Most of these stories were presumed to have happened to the story teller, they were first hand experiences with spirits, as noted by Jerome’s quote above.

 

It may seem an odd combination, yet one of the most well-known stories told each year at Christmas uses ghosts to explore the human themes of, guilt and innocence, wealth and poverty and our ability to transform and change our circumstances, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Using ghosts then would have been a natural tool for Dickens to use for the telling of his story.

 

Dickens himself had used this method in a previous story to A Christmas Carol, The Story of the Goblins who Stole a Sexton.  Like in ‘Carol’ the protagonist in ‘Goblins’ is a miserly grumpy fellow who is kidnapped by goblins so they may show him the error of his ways.

 

 

The link between Christmas and ghost stories comes from its connection to the winter solstice. The date of December 25 was chosen for Christmas because it was near to the winter solstice which is also the shortest day of the year. According to knowledgenuts.com, “The solstice was also considered the most haunted day of the year due to its association with death of light.” It goes on to say that the barrier between the living and the dead was lowered or thinned on this, the darkest day of the year. When the barrier thinned, specters could easily cross over. What better day to tell a good ghost story, particularly a firsthand encounter with spirits, then on Christmas Eve.

 

“Of course, as a mere matter of information it is quite unnecessary to mention that date at all. The experienced reader know it was Christmas Eve, without my telling him. It always is Christmas Eve, in a ghost story. Christmas Eve is the ghosts’ great gala night. On Christmas Eve they hold their annual fete. On Christmas Eve everybody in Ghostland who is anybody—or rather, speaking of ghosts, one should say, I suppose, every nobody who is any nobody—comes out to show himself or herself, to see and to be seen, to promenade about and display their winding-sheets and grave-clothes.” Introduction to Jerome K. Jerome’s, Told After Supper Christmas ghost stories published in 1891.

 

In the introduction to his book, Jerome explains about all the different ghosts of ‘Ghostland’ who they are, who they visit and why. Dickens uses the ghost of Marley and his appearance in a similar fashion. Marley, while explaining his experience, tells Scrooge about the ghosts that will visit him throughout the night.

 

“Hear me!” cried the Ghost. “My time is nearly gone.”

“I will,” said Scrooge. “But don’t be hard upon me! Don’t be flowery, Jacob! Pray!”

“How it is that I appear before you in a shape that you can see, I may not tell. I have sat invisible beside you many and many a day.”

It was not an agreeable idea. Scrooge shivered, and wiped the perspiration from his brow.

“That is no light part of my penance,” pursued the Ghost. “I am here to-night to warn you, that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate. A chance and hope of my procuring, Ebenezer.”

“You were always a good friend to me,” said Scrooge. “Thank’ee!”

“You will be haunted,” resumed the Ghost, “by Three Spirits.”

Scrooge’s countenance fell almost as low as the Ghost’s had done.

“Is that the chance and hope you mentioned, Jacob?” he demanded, in a faltering voice.

“It is.”

“I—I think I’d rather not,” said Scrooge.

“Without their visits,” said the Ghost, “you cannot hope to shun the path I tread. Expect the first to-morrow, when the bell tolls One.” ~A Christmas Carol

 

 

 

A Christmas Carol could be the most well-known holiday ghost story. “Some argue that Dickens’ Christmas ghost story single-handedly saved the winter holiday from dying out during the Industrial Revolution,” says Jeffry Peterson of Desert News.

 

When Dickens’ Carol was published in 1843, Christmas wasn’t being celebrated in England any longer. The day for many was just another working day. According to historic-uk.com, “Before Victoria’s reign started in 1837 nobody in Britain had heard of Santa Claus or Christmas Crackers.” The Industrial Revolution provided wealth and technologies that changed the face of Christmas.

 

Many of our traditions and how we celebrate Christmas in America come from Victorian England. Sending Christmas Cards, singing Christmas carols and decorating the house and evergreens.

 

In the preface to A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens writes,

 

“I have endeavoured in this Ghostly little book, to raise the Ghost of an Idea, which shall not put my readers out of humour with themselves, with each other, with the season, or with me. May it haunt their houses pleasantly, and no one wish to lay it.” Signed, Their faithful Friend and Servant, C.D. December, 1843

 

At some point the telling of ghost stories on Christmas Eve faded away, at least in America. But we still watch our favorite version of A Christmas Caro; some may even dare to open the book and read the time tested novel. In recent years Tim Burton’s Nightmare Before Christmas, which combines the ghosts and goblins of Halloween and Christmas to tell a new tale, has become, in some homes, a tradition.

 

The tradition of ghosts for the holidays can also be heard in some Christmas songs. In the well-known song It’s the most wonderful time of the year, Edward Pola and George Wyle give a nod to the old Victorian tradition.

There’ll be parties for hosting

Marshmallows for hosting

And caroling out in the snow

There’ll be scary ghost stories

And tales of the glories

Of Christmases long, long ago 

~It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year, 1963

 

“‘I will live in the Past, the Present, and the Future!’ Scrooge repeated, as he scrambled out of bed. ‘The Spirits of all Three shall strive within me. Oh Jacob Marley! Heaven and the Christmas Time be praised for this! I say it on my knees, of Jacob, on my knees!’”