Our Private Legislatures

Published — May 21, 2000 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Looking out for #1


State representatives and senators are elected to carry out the will of the public. But all across the country, lawmakers time and again are looking out for their own interests. Here are some examples of the most common ways this is achieved:

  1. Changing the law is good for business
  2. Family ties
  3. Profiting from non-profits
  4. Job creation
  5. Winning state contracts
  6. Consulting – nice work if you can get it
  7. Working for advocacy groups
  8. Lawyers who represent special interests
  9. Lawyers who represent clients before state agencies
  10. Working for lobbying groups
  1. Changing the law is good for business
    • IN MAINE, the president and CEO of a multi-million dollar health care claims-processing corporation and president of a chain of pharmacies uses his political power as a legislator to benefit himself and both companies, one of which receives more than $10 million in taxpayer-funded contracts from the state.
    • IN NEBRASKA, two lawmakers – both owners of stores that sell lottery tickets – push for legislation that would increase their commissions from lottery ticket sales while reducing funding for gambling addiction services as well as state education and environment programs.
    • IN NORTH DAKOTA, a lawmaker is chief sponsor of a bill to fund the state’s Agricultural Products Utilization Commission. The state agency later awards research grants totaling $37,500 to the pasta company chaired by the legislator.
  2. Family ties
    • IN CONNECTICUT, nine lawmakers whose relatives work for the state’s scandal-ridden county sheriffs departments impede a constitutional amendment that would abolish the sheriffs system, which has been characterized as little more than “a jobs program for politicians.”
    • IN OREGON, 15 legislators have spouses on the public payroll. In a recent session of the state legislature, lawmakers approved a 61 percent pay increase for their legislative assistants – many of whom are their husbands and wives.
  3. Profiting from non-profits
    • IN KANSAS, a lawmaker fails to report in his annual disclosure that his wife is the executive director of a non-profit organization called YouthFriends. The Kansas Youth Authority, a state panel chaired by the lawmaker, awarded YouthFriends a $250,000 grant.
    • IN MASSACHUSETTS, a lawmaker uses his position as chairman of the House Banking Committee to pressure Boston banks to make $20,000 in donations to a charity he works for. At the time the solicitations took place, the legislature was considering a number of banking proposals, including a ban on surcharges at ATM machines.
    • IN UTAH, a lawmaker who heads the Public Utilities and Technology Committee is also the director of a local charity that benefited from a $15,000 gift given by U S West Communications. The donation came as the legislator’s committee was considering sweeping reforms that would affect telecoomunications companies like U.S. West.
  4. Job creation
    • IN ARKANSAS, a lawmaker who is the legal counsel for an organization called the Red River Commission, pushes a bill that provides $3.3 million to study whether it is feasible to make the river more navigable, even though the Army Corps of Engineers has already concluded it is not.
    • IN NEW JERSEY, a lawmaker uses his position as chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee to push for and win passage of legislation called the New Jersey Trade Development Act. He is rewarded with a seat on the board of directors of an international trade consulting company that was formed to take advantage of the legislation.
  5. Winning state contracts
    • IN ALASKA, a lawmaker uses her position to urge the state’s Natural Resources commissioner to give favorable treatment to two companies seeking permission to lay fiber optic cable – including one firm that employed her husband. According to published reports, the two companies stood to save $32 million thanks to the lawmaker’s efforts.
    • IN VERMONT, a lawmaker is executive director of a non-profit mental health care provider that does millions of dollars in business with the state each year. This lawmaker has written legislation creating programs that could potentially benefit his organization by providing it with additional state contracts.
  6. Consulting – nice work if you can get it
    • IN CALIFORNIA, one lawmaker fails to report $65,000 in consulting fee income, including funds from a San Francisco financier who was tried and acquitted of misusing at least $1.5 million in public money.
    • IN VIRGINIA, one lawmaker receives upto $50,000 in consulting fees from a pharmaceutical maker which had recently opened a multi-million dollar manufacturing plant in his district. As a paid consultant for the company, the lawmaker lobbies his colleagues in the legislature to appear before state regulators about matters tied to the company and its operations.
    • IN WASHINGTON, one lawmaker who receives $16,000 in consulting fees from the University of Washington is slow to reveal his financial relationship with the institution. He co-chairs a House committee with oversight of public construction projects in the state – including those on the campus of UW.
  7. Working for special interests
    • IN COLORADO, one lawmaker votes for legislation that could harm consumers while benefiting his employer, U S West Communications, by allowing the company to raise phone rates.
    • IN MISSISSIPPI, one lawmaker has close ties to one of the most powerful special interests in the country – the Associated General Contractors. In addition to his job at the statehouse, this lawmaker is the Gulf Coast regional director for the association and proposes bills favored by the industry.
    • IN OHIO, one lawmaker’s financial consulting firm received $161,000 from Ohio Edison over a two-year period, and the lawmaker later drafted legislation that allows power companies in the state to charge customers more than $8 billion for past investments in nuclear power plants. Asked about the appearance of a conflict, the lawmaker denies that he did anything improper.
  8. Representing special interest groups
    • IN IDAHO, one lawmaker opposes two bills that would expand the rights of citizens whose land the government seized for new road construction. In doing so, the lawmaker said it never entered his mind that the Boise law firm he works for represents many of the municipalities whose road building would be made slower and more costly by the legislation.
    • IN LOUISIANA, one lawmaker frequently champions legislation sought by the city of Kenner, one of the state’s fastest growing municipalities. At the same time, this legislator has been employed at a law firm that in 1998 received approximately one-third of its income – $426,000 – from the city of Kenner.
    • IN NEVADA, one lawmaker who works for a law firm that represents several big gaming companies uses his political influence to write legislation that would help casinos by, among other things, allowing them to write off as tax-deductible complimentary tokens that they hand out to their patrons.
  9. Representing clients before state agencies
    • IN SOUTH CAROLINA, one lawmaker who led efforts to reform the state’s workers’ compensation laws has a significant business interest in the process. The legislator works for a law firm that earned more than $600,000 in fees representing injured people before the South Carolina Workers’ Compensation Commission.
  10. Working for a lobbying group
    • IN ILLINOIS, one lawmaker has been a prime sponsor of “tort reform” legislation that would limit the amount plaintiffs can collect when they sue businesses or physicians. This legislator works at a law firm where one of the clients is the malpractice insurance arm of the Illinois State Medical Society. The state senator himself was a registered lobbyist during the time period when the debate occured.
    • IN MARYLAND, one lawmaker allegedly joins with a lobbyist to defraud chemical companies out of lobbying fees by proposing legislation that would make it easier to file lawsuits against paint companies and asbestos manufacturers. In return for his participation, prosecutors say, the lawmaker receives a $10,125 commission from a real estate transaction.
    • IN MICHIGAN, one lawmaker who is a candidate for U.S. Congress uses her position as vice chair of the legislative committee that handles agriculture issues to pass legislation allocating funding to a lobbying group run by her husband.

Read more in Money and Democracy

Share this article

Join the conversation

Show Comments

Notify of
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments