If history is our guide, we expect the Arizona Legislature will once again prove it prefers to weather the storm rather than address its ethics.
Monday, The Arizona Republic broke news that four state representatives are on the payroll of a politically powerful nonprofit organization. The four, all representatives of legislative districts in the Phoenix and Tucson areas, won’t tell the press how much they are paid. The nonprofit, Chicanos por la Causa, won’t say what the job duties are for these lawmakers.
Revelation of the employment status was made as Democrats in the Legislature sought to determine how to allocate $90 million in COVID-19 relief funds. The idea that lawmakers are on the payroll of one of the nonprofits petitioning for the funding creates the appearance of conflict of interest.
Legislators in Arizona are paid $24,000 a year and receive a per diem for travel, meals, accommodations and other expenses incurred while serving the public. They are allowed to have second jobs to supplement that income but are discouraged from actively representing the interests of the company they are employed by.
The language that governs this secondary employment policy is vague. Our state senator, David Gowan, for example, had no qualms about sponsoring legislation to loosen the laws governing fireworks in Arizona, even though one of his part-time jobs is selling fireworks.
Other examples of lawmakers walking close to the line on ethics are numerous throughout the history of the state Legislature. During the most recent session members of the ethics committee considered, but then dismissed, complaints filed against Tucson Rep. Mark Finchem for his actions at the Jan. 6 riot at the nation’s capital.
Last year a complaint against Sen. Wendy Rogers alleged mistreatment of a staff employee. Two years ago the legislative ethics committee considered allegations against Sen. Ugenti-Rita for sexual misconduct involving a lobbyist. Rep. David Cook faced an ethics complaint after his “too-friendly” relationship with a lobbyist raised questions in 2020.
None of these complaints were raised to the level of punishment for the legislators involved. In the 109-year history of the Arizona Legislature, only two of its members have been expelled for bad behavior, with the most recent being Yuma Rep. Don Shooter in 2018.
Lawmakers treat ethics like a political weapon. Shooter’s expulsion represents the only true bipartisan action, which is an indication of the degree of its severity. Otherwise, it was a Democrat who brought the ethics complaint against Rep. Finchem and similar “cross-party” attacks were the case in other instances.
Ethics and ethical behavior should be the public’s sledgehammer that assures our lawmakers are accountable for their behavior and serving the interests of those they are elected to represent.
The absence of an independently-enforced and strong ethics code encourages lawmakers to play loose and fast with the rules, like secondary employment, conflicts of interest and other policies intended to prevent the public’s interests from being short changed.
In the coming legislative session, we hope the Legislature gets serious about enacting an effective ethics code.