There are “Cowboy Ethics” and then there are “Cowboy State Ethics.”
One is a near-mythical Code of the West used to illustrate the principles of honesty, dealing with neighbors, hard work and fairness in a place where lawyers aren’t present at every meeting and being as good as your word still counts for something.
Cowboy State Ethics, on the other hand, refers to how business gets done in our state.
Wyoming is a place that often brags about its citizen Legislature — rightfully so. At its best, it means that lawmakers are not professional, full-time politicians. They are close to the people and pride themselves on access.
And yet at its worst, that closeness can create conflicts of interest and be intensely parochial. In a small state, it’s nearly impossible for folks not to have multiple acquaintances and connections to each other, making for some odd bedfellows.
The allegations of Wyoming Superintendent of Public Instruction Cindy Hill about Sen. Phil Nicholas, R-Laramie, should give folks pause. It appears that Nicholas may have used his power as a lawmaker to direct funding to a Laramie charter school which his law firm represented.
The problem with the allegations is that they give the appearance of wrongdoing, regardless of the situation or scenario. As with so many questionable practices, the truth of the matter is more gray than black or white. For example, the charter school which Nicholas’ firm represents has indeed needed a home in the real-estate tight Laramie area. And more area lawmakers have been working with the charter school than just Nicholas.
Still, perception becomes reality, and it appears that clients of Nicholas just got sizeable legislative help from him.
Nicholas has defended his actions saying he helped broker a deal that solved a long-term problem in his district. After all, is there a better definition of an effective legislator?
This isn’t the first time recently a lawmaker has been called into question for legislation that looks to be self-serving and a conflict of interest. Not even two years ago, former Casper Sen. Kit Jennings was questioned about his proposed legislation that would benefit a company he worked for.
The challenge then —and now — is that Wyoming has relatively few ethics laws and procedures. It’s not that they are absent, it’s just that most of the power lies within the Legislature and its leadership. That means if there are ethical concerns or violations, lawmakers have to be willing to punish one of their own — a tough, if not unfair position to put them in. In this case, Nicholas, a member of leadership, would actually have to punish himself if he, or the rest of the body, believed he had done anything wrong.
We understand Nicholas’ assertion: He saw a problem in his hometown and worked on a fix.
We also think the other facts, namely that this charter school is a client, which appears too much like a conflict of interest to be above board. The perception is more of a problem than any reality.
The real challenge is there is no recourse in this matter. There is no independent arbiter of ethics. And even public outrage is somewhat limited in a state that’s as heavily Republican as Wyoming.
But Wyoming deserves better, if ittruly is going to live up to its mythic code. We hope that lawmakers understand this issue isn’t just about a Laramie charter school or one particular senator. Instead, it’s about the amount of faith citizens have in the system. If Wyoming residents believe that every deal brokered is simply the result of some political back-scratching, then the entire political process is hurt because faith will erode.
Government — and especially leadership — has to be above board. It’s not good enough that there truly aren’t any conflicts of interest. There can’t even be the appearance.