CHEYENNE — While Wyoming has been relatively free of embarrassing political scandals, a national watchdog group is urging state legislators to be proactive and adopt stricter anti-corruption laws.
The Chicago-based Better Government Association rated Wyoming second-worst in the country in its third annual survey of anti-corruption laws. Montana ranked last. The BGA is an investigative journalism nonprofit organization that follows the motto, “Shining a Light on Government.” It works under a board of directors and doesn’t accept government funding. It receives support from foundations, corporations, law firms, major donors and individual citizens. It also works with media outlets.
The survey included four categories: open meetings, freedom of information, whistleblower protection and conflict of interest.
Rhode Island ranked No. 1 in the survey, followed by New Jersey and Illinois.
“Despite a multitude of scandals, jailed ex-governors and a sordid political history, Illinois ranks as a top-tier state in the Better Government Association’s Integrity Index when it comes to existing laws that enable regular citizens to fight corruption,” the report said.
The BGA report added that the exposure of the corruption and scandals probably was responsible for the push in New Jersey and Illinois to adopt stricter safeguards and more comprehensive so-called sunshine laws.
In contrast, many states like Wyoming, with the weakest overall laws, haven’t experienced widespread abuses or visible scandals and so have not been convinced of the need for sweeping reforms, the report said.
Reaction to the report and Wyoming’s low grade was mixed.
“We take this information seriously,” Gov. Matt Mead said in a prepared statement. “However, we put it in perspective because the study is not saying we have corruption, it says we do not have certain laws on the books.
“Having the most laws on the books does not change the culture and our culture is one of integrity.”
As a former prosecutor at the state and federal level, Mead said he knows that law enforcement has sought out corruption and the justice system has dealt with
State Senate President Tony Ross, R-Cheyenne, said he hadn’t seen the report. However, like many legislators, Ross doesn’t put much stock into surveys by out-of-state organizations.
“They do these surveys and then try to put us into the pie, so to speak,” Ross said.
“We’re a state of 565,000 people and everybody knows everybody. You can legislate as many things as you want for ethics, but it really comes down to the individual doing the right thing,” he said.
Robert Reed of the BGA said the position of Wyoming lawmakers isn’t unusual because legislators tend to like the status quo and want to protect it.
“We would challenge them to look at our survey and think about more free and open access and disclosure,” Reed said. “We believe that more information only makes governance and democracy better.”
State House Speaker Tom Lubnau, R-Gillette, said the Wyoming Legislature is already proactive. He cited the current special legislative committee investigation of state Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill amid allegations of wrongdoing in the Wyoming Department of Education, including misuse of federal funds.
Hill has repeatedly denied such allegations.
Lubnau said he wasn’t saying Hill is corrupt, but that the investigation demonstrates the Legislature’s ability and willingness to move when faced with such allegations.
“It seems to me that laws on the books don’t stop corruption,” Lubnau said. “Just because you have a box checked, doesn’t mean you’re not corrupt.”
Lubnau and Ross both said the joint House-Senate rules adopted two years ago that detail the procedures for handling ethical complaints against legislators is another example of the Legislature taking action to remedy a problem.
The rules grew out of a formal ethical complaint against state Rep. Sue Wallis, R-Recluse. Lubnau said that was the first formal ethical complaint filed against a state lawmaker, and there was no rule governing how to proceed.
The complaint against Wallis was eventually dismissed. The lawmakers, through the Legislature’s Management Council, developed rules listing the procedures to be followed if similar complaints are filed in the future.
The rules require the Management Council — composed of legislative leaders — to appoint a subcommittee to investigate such a complaint.
The subcommittee is to include council members of the House or Senate, depending on the chamber of the legislator who is the target of the complaint.
The subcommittee will determine in executive session whether there is probable cause of misconduct. If there is, the leaders will appoint a special committee to conduct public hearings and recommend dismissal of the complaint, reprimand, censure, expulsion or any other discipline it deems appropriate.
Expulsion of a member requires a two-thirds vote of the members, as required by the Wyoming Constitution.
Reprimand or censure of a member requires a majority vote of the elected members.
One reason for Wyoming’s poor grade in the BGA report was the lack of requirement that documents be posted online for easier access by citizens.
The BGA report said this lag in using easily available technology is a common flaw in many states.
Ross said the Legislature has taken steps to improve the use of Internet technology by creating the new state Information Technology Division.
Other observations and comments from the report included:
While Wyoming public officials are required to file full financial disclosure forms every year, candidates for public office are not. Also, the public official disclosure forms aren’t required to be posted online and the required content is weak. The state’s law on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) doesn’t specify the time allowed for a government entity to release the documents. This means an agency could take forever to produce a document, Reed said. Many states require disclosure within five business days.
Wyoming received a better ranking — 39th — for its whistleblower law. The flaw was that although it covers state employees, it doesn’t cover independent contractors, who are being used more and more. Wyoming got downgraded on its open meetings law because it fails to require a specific time for advance notice of special meetings and doesn’t define what a special meeting can entail. The Legislature last winter improved the state’s open meetings law by requiring eight hours of advance notice for special meetings, said Dan Neal of the Equality State Policy Center and Jim Angell of the Wyoming Press Association.
The BGA recommended 24 hours’ notice.
“We’re getting there,” Angell said of 24 hours’ notice. “You try to compare us to larger states, and we’re just not going to measure up well, because we haven’t had the kind of experiences that a lot of larger states have.”
Neal said the advance-notice change was needed to remedy situations such as in Sweetwater County, when a public official gave 15 minutes’ advance notice of a special meeting by calling the local newspaper.
Neal agreed with the BGA on the need for some time frame for an agency to produce documents requested through the Freedom of Information Act.
The issue is pertinent, he said, given that Hill, the superintendent of public instruction, has complained that the governor’s office is taking too long to produce staff member e-mails she requested. The governor’s office said staff members must go through each email to be sure it doesn’t involved a confidential personnel issue.
Neal suggested a system be created to separate e-mails involving personnel issues from other e-mail accounts so requested information can be readily available.
Neal is particularly interested in more discussion about requiring financial disclosure by people who are candidates for public office. The information could be posted on the secretary of state’s Web page, he said.
Overall, the BGA report said the national integrity index average was only
55 percent and no state scored 70 percent, indicating that even the top states are falling well short of their responsibilities to the public in providing the necessary tools to ensure transparency and accountability.