Ethical behavior shouldn’t be difficult, but state lawmakers and other elected officials sometimes have a hard time staying on the straight and narrow. Ethics rules, therefore, should be narrow and concise. And, to protect the public, Ohio needs reform legislation to make them binding on elected officials.
The most obvious form of transgression involves accepting improper gifts. Golf outings, dinners, and expense-paid vacations raise warning flags that any politicians should see. Yet temptation can cloud their better judgment.
Last June, former state Rep. W. Carlton Weddington (D., Columbus) was sentenced to three years in prison for accepting $5,000 in cash as well as trips to Napa Valley, Calif., and South Beach, Fla. His lawyer called the ethical breaches “errors in judgment.”
Less obvious are the ethical questions that arise when elected officials push legislation that benefits them. Such conflicts of interest often are overlooked, even when they appear obvious to average citizens.
State Rep. Lynn Wachtmann (R., Napoleon) owns a bottling company that gets its water from Napoleon, which draws from the Lake Erie watershed. He also sits on the board of directors of the International Bottled Water Association. Yet neither he nor — apparently — the Office of the Legislative Inspector General thought that should stop him from sponsoring legislation to significantly increase the volume of water that companies — such as his — are allowed to draw from that same watershed.
In 2009, state Sen. Chris Widener (R., Springfield) attached an amendment to a state budget bill that eventually resulted in more than $400,000 for a struggling nonprofit organization the senator had helped to found. Mr. Widener resigned from the nonprofit before any legislative action was taken.
Yet questions have been raised. Mr. Widener did not disclose that he was a member of the Ohio Equine and Agricultural Association’s board of directors. Nor did he reveal that he had guaranteed a bank loan to the group.
It is unclear how close Mr. Wachtmann and Mr. Widener skated to the edge of legislative ethics rules. The law has too many loopholes — such as one that allows free trips to meetings of organizations they pay membership dues to — to be a secure guide.
In response to Mr. Weddington’s ethical lapse, House Speaker William Batchelder said that lawmakers depend “upon the veracity of the members.” All Ohioans depend on that veracity.
It is clear that reform is needed. Senate President Tom Niehaus (R., New Richmond) recently introduced a bill to update legislative ethics rules. But it wasn’t comprehensive reform, and it died when lawmakers went home at the end of the lame-duck session.
Lawmakers are as likely to succumb to temptation as anyone else. But they have been entrusted with greater power and responsibility, so their lapses can do more harm. So to protect them from themselves — and us from them — elected officials should have a code of ethics that permits no gray areas.