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Could your elected official have a conflict of interest?

Secretary of State Ed Murray, whose office oversees filings for new businesses in the state, is involved in 16 LLCs himself, all of which are registered to an office suite in Cheyenne.

State Superintendent of Public Instruction Jillian Balow is the only one of Wyoming’s five elected officials who does not claim any investment income, or hold office in any private business enterprise.

These are just two findings from the financial disclosure forms of state elected officials. These public documents are required of the five elected officials — Wyoming’s governor, state treasurer, secretary of state, superintendent of public instruction and state auditor — as well as all 90 legislators.

The documents are uploaded below and were obtained via a records request to the Wyoming Secretary of State’s office.

The most striking feature of the documents is how little they disclose. If legislators receive income from investments, real estate or royalties, they check a box, but there is no information about what those investments could be. “They’re not incredibly helpful to my knowledge,” Kai Schon, the election director for the Secretary of State, said of the forms.

Wyoming statute leaves it up to legislators and officials themselves to discern when they may have a conflict of interest.

“A member who has a personal or private interest in any measure or bill proposed or pending before the legislature shall disclose the fact to the house of which he is a member, and shall not vote thereon,” reads Article 3, Section 46 of the Wyoming State Constitution.

Wyoming has a citizen legislature. Many lawmakers and elected officials are business owners, ranchers or investment holders, and the financial disclosure forms exist to ensure any potential conflicts of interest are on the public record.

“That transparency is really important,” Balow said. After a career in public education and state government, her financials are much simpler than many others, she said.

But many of the forms do not seem thoroughly filled out. Some lawmakers listed being a legislator under the sections related to employment; others did not. Lawmakers receive a salary and a per diem reimbursement for lodging and travel while in session or at interim meetings.

On her financial disclosure form, Balow did not check two boxes asking whether investment income was earned from security or interest earnings, or real estate, leases or royalties. Though she failed to check the “no” box on the form, that would have been the correct answer, she said.

Sen. Affie Ellis (R, SD-8, Cheyenne) answered no to the question of whether she receives investment earnings. However, in an interview she said that along with her husband she has an investment company with a share of a Cheyenne steakhouse. She acknowledged a potential conflict of interest during the session, choosing not to vote on two bills that she said could have affected the restaurant’s liquor license.

State ranks poorly for electeds’ accountability

In 2015, the Center for Public Integrity ranked Wyoming 33rd of all states for legislative accountability, and 47th for accountability of the executive branch of government. The low rankings came in part from the fact that while elected officials are required to file financial disclosure forms, their family members are not. Wyoming’s score was also hurt because the forms, along with a lot of other public information, are not published online.

A further reduction in score came from the fact that financial disclosure forms are self-determined and are not independently audited.

This remains true today, according to Schon. There is no follow-up to ensure the financial disclosure forms are accurate, provided they’re turned in on time and appear complete.

“Our office is essentially a repository for these forms,” Schon said, “similar to campaign finance reports.” The onus for accuracy is on the legislator or elected official, he said.

There hasn’t been much interest in the forms. Schon said his office fields maybe one or two requests a year for copies. Balow said she rarely gets a call asking about her disclosure form.

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The system being self-governed by the elected officials themselves is problematic, Sarah Gorin said. She’s a former director of the Equality State Policy Center, where she frequently focused on increased government transparency and accountability.

In a citizen legislature there are bound to be conflicts of interest, she said. “They do have conflicts, so they should declare them.”

In 1997, the Wyoming Attorney General’s office was asked to issue a public opinion on what type of interest represents a personal conflict for a legislator — the most recently available public opinion on the subject.

The office wrote that “conflicts of interest are typically subtle, and no one definition will always answer the question of whether a conflict exists.” Even when a specific conflict may not exist, the office warned lawmakers against creating the “appearance of impropriety.”

“The appearance of impropriety may in turn serve to undermine the public’s confidence in the integrity of the government,” the opinion read

Search the documents uploaded below for the form filed by your elected representatives, or search for one of the other five elected officials.

 



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About the Author

andrew@wyofile.com

Andrew Graham is reporting for WyoFile from Laramie. He covers state government, energy and the economy. Reach him at 443-848-8756 or at andrew@wyofile.com

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5 Responses to Could your elected official have a conflict of interest?

  1. Timothy Dexter April 3, 2017 at 5:48 pm #

    Thank you Wyofile for keeping the porch light shining on the fourth estate. Imagine the horror if you will, of a hypothetical world in which an elected official might feel justified in using the power of his editorship of a local publication to “purge” his own political interests of conflict (so to speak)…..and I say hypothetical simply because the voters in Weston County had the good judgement to finally “edit” this particular individual from his comfortable chairmanship in the last election cycle.

    Newcastle, Wyoming

  2. Chris Rothfuss March 28, 2017 at 11:54 am #

    Fixed now. Thanks Andrew.

    Laramie, Wyoming

  3. Maria Katherman March 28, 2017 at 11:34 am #

    How about “farmer/ranchers” that in fact derive their principle income from oil/gas royalties, leases, etc. or land value based on grazing leases for public land? I see nowhere on these forms to make those distinctions. (Nor on property taxes, either…)

    Inez, Wyoming

  4. Chris Rothfuss March 28, 2017 at 11:24 am #

    The link to my financial report shows up blank through the link provided. However, the download PDF link on the same page (upper right) shows correctly…

    https://assets.documentcloud.org/documents/3524117/Rothfuss-Chris-SD9.pdf

    Cheers,
    -Chris

    Senate Minority Leader
    Wyoming Senate District 9
    Laramie, WY

    Laramie, Wyoming

  5. Dewey Vanderhoff March 28, 2017 at 9:41 am #

    Owing to such a small inbred nepotistic population , everything in Wyoming is a conflict of interest . Except politics, which is an interest in conflict…

    Cody, Wyoming

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