Wyoming’s government could be more transparent and work harder to ensure existing ethics laws are properly enforced.
That was the conclusion of the State Integrity Report, a nationwide analysis released this month that tracks open government policies in each U.S. state. The report, sponsored by the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit investigative news agency Center for Public Integrity, gave Wyoming and 10 other states an “F” ranking.
“Across the country, state lawmakers and agency officials operate with glaring conflicts of interest and engage in brazenly cozy relationships with lobbyists,” wrote CPI reporter Nicholas Kusnetz in an opinion piece. “Ethics and open records laws are riddled with loopholes, while the watchdogs meant to enforce them face crippling shortages of cash and staff.”
Wyoming’s government, run by people who often have lifelong relationships and small-town ties, sometimes has problems with conflicts of interest, according to one good-government lobbyist in Wyoming.
“[Wyoming’s conflict of interest policy] is very fuzzy, and when people violate it, the tendency — if no one calls them on it — is to look the other way,” said Marguerite Herman, lobbyist with the League of Women Voters. “It is poorly enforced. It is very ad-hoc.”
At the same time, director of the Wyoming Press Association Jim Angell said Wyoming does a decent job with open records.
“I don’t know if we deserve the ‘F’ we got,” Angell said. “Wyoming’s public documents and open meetings laws are broad.” They’ve also been supported by the Wyoming Supreme Court, Angell said, citing rulings in favor of openness in 17 of 19 open records cases.
Yet the state lacks some ethics policies that the Center for Public Integrity holds up as the gold standard for good government. For example, legislators exempted their state emails from Wyoming’s open records law. Another example is Wyoming’s asset disclosure laws for public officials and lobbyists, which lack detail and are seldom audited.
“Greater disclosure to let the public know what forces are influencing legislation would go a long way,” Herman said. “The idea is ‘We’re Wyoming and we can’t become too stringent because we are all good people.’ As good as we are, we could certainly use more guidance, and more enforcement of the rules we do have.”
The bright spots
The report gave Wyoming an “F” in 10 of 13 categories, ranking 40th or lower in almost all areas. However, the state scored higher in the categories of legislative accountability, internal auditing, and budget process.
The brightest spot in the report is Wyoming’s budgeting policies, which earned a top-three ranking in the nation. The state earned that score for requiring legislative approval for appropriations, and for keeping open records on budgeting easily accessible online, among other measures.
Wyoming’s revenue forecasting, quarterly revenue updates, public budget message by the governor, and budget auditing also received high marks.
No ethics enforcement agency
The report knocked Wyoming for not having an entity tasked with monitoring compliance and appeals relating to open government and public records laws.
Open data is limited
Wyoming also lacks easy access to many kinds of government records in an “open data” format. To earn a high score, the data would need to be accessible online and downloadable in a bulk format that is machine-readable.
While the Secretary of State’s Office provides campaign finance information in open data format, similar data is not as easy to access for general public records, audits, asset disclosures, or ethics enforcement reports.
Lax disclosure laws, limited audits
Wyoming’s score got dinged across multiple areas of government because of lax state laws on asset disclosure for public officials.
While Wyoming does require certain officials to file asset disclosures listing the type of assets and private business affiliations they hold, there are no dollar amounts required. Further, the state does not audit the asset disclosures, and they are not easily accessible to the public in online format.
On the elections front, Wyoming does not routinely audit campaign finance reports, nor provide for an entity to independently initiate investigations into allegations of elections fraud. Candidates aren’t banned from spending campaign funds for personal purposes.
The revolving door between government and lobbying
Wyoming lacks a “revolving door” policy that regulates how soon after leaving office public officials can take private sector positions where they would seek to influence their former colleagues on public business.
Generally, Wyoming has no restrictions mandating a “cooling off” period before seeking private sector employment in areas where there would be a conflict of interest. There are numerous examples of lawmakers who retired and promptly registered as lobbyists.
In one case that Herman recalled, a legislator announced he would step down from his seat after the session to lobby for an industry group. He then continued voting for industry-friendly bills that the group supported for the rest of the session.
“I’ve seen it repeatedly, the revolving door from industry to a regulatory agency and back and forth,” said Jill Morrison, a community organizer and sometimes lobbyist for the Powder River Basin Resource Council. Sometimes it’s not even a revolving door, but people wearing two hats at the same time. “[I’ve seen] people who are regulators making decisions, and [they] are also in businesses that their regulatory decisions affect,” she said.
No whistleblower law
Among civil service employees, there is no law requiring civil servants to report cases of alleged corruption through an internal mechanism.
Few rules to keep spending ethical
Wyoming’s ethics laws for buying goods or services for government is lacking, according the report. For government contractors, there is no law allowing for a review of a rejected bid.
Contractors who attempt to bribe public officials are not barred from making future bids. Sole sourcing of vendors, where the government goes with a certain vendor because it is the only available provider, is not limited by law to specific, defined conditions.
The report scored Wyoming low on lobbying rules because it only requires lobbyists to file spending reports once a year, and because lobbyists aren’t required to report how much companies pay them to inform and influence legislators. Lobbyists also aren’t restricted from giving campaign donations to candidates.
No disclosure of pension broker placement fees
For the state retirement fund, investment salesmen who try to win state pension business for asset managers aren’t required to disclose their fees.
As pension systems have grown nationwide, so has the potential for abuses by dealmakers who win business through cozy relationships with politicians.
A work in progress
Wyoming is taking steps to improve transparency. This coming week, the Corporations committee will hear a draft bill that would enshrine in the state constitution a right to privacy, and a right to access public records.
Angell said the proposed amendment is “a marvelous win for everyone involved.” The bill would need further approval by the full Legislature in 2016.
A public records amendment may provide more consistent interpretations of Wyoming’s public records laws. As it is, different agencies apply the law in different ways, according to Morrison.
The Oil and Gas Conservation Commission has a wealth of open data on its website, Morrison said. But the Department of Environmental Quality slows down many public records requests by funneling them through a public information officer. “It’s gotten harder since they got a public information office, which is kind of ironic,” she said.
Just because Wyoming is a small state doesn’t mean that it can’t put in place more stringent ethics policies that would help ensure transparent government, Herman said.
“We sell ourselves short sometimes thinking that we can’t adhere to these big city rules, big state rules. In general, I think legislators and lobbyists behave ethically, and these rules [for disclosure and transparency] would not impair anyone in legislating and in lobbying.”
Click here to see Wyoming’s State Integrity scores, and read CPI’s Wyoming profile by reporter Brielle Schaeffer.