CONFLICTS & ETHICS – A Necessary Discussion
In a perfect world a lawmaker would abstain from sponsoring/voting on any bill that is a personal conflict of interest. Likewise, a lawmaker would abstain from serving on a committee that is a personal conflict of interest. For example: A legislator who owns an oil/gas/minerals related company would not serve on the minerals committee, or sponsor/vote on any oil/gas/minerals related bills.
But it quickly becomes complicated:
1) WY is one of very few states that has a “citizen legislature” whose body is made up of individual Wyomingites who usually have a full-time occupation outside of the legislature. (The alternative to a citizen legislature is having fulltime professional politicians. We believe, as a great majority of Wyomingites do, the alternative sounds repugnant. And so we must do all we can to remain/maintain being a state that employs a citizen legislature.)
2) Members of a citizen legislature can bring/offer special expertise from their fulltime occupations that can be extremely helpful in educating fellow legislators, studying all necessary angles of an issue, and drafting bills. WY legislative leadership, in fact, appears to embrace this reality because we consistently see legislators being assigned (or even chairing) a committee that would be considered a conflict of interest.
Examples: Senator Fred Baldwin is a Physician Assistant who has been serving on the Labor, Health & Social Services Committee since he was elected (2015), and co-chairing it since 2018. Another example is lawyer-legislators who have served or currently serve on the Judiciary Committee (Tara Nethercott, Barry Crago, Ember Oakley, Jeremy Olsen, Clark Stith to name a few.)
Having a legislator with their professional expertise, such as Fred Baldwin, being assigned by legislative leadership to a committee that is a clear conflict of interest is sadly part of WY legislative history, but still never fails to shock the system when you consider one of the fundamental ethics provisions in our Wyoming State Constitution:
Article 3, Section 46. Interested member shall not vote.
A member who has a personal or private interest in any measure or bill proposed or pending before the legislature shall disclose the fact to the house of which he is a member, and shall not vote thereon.
One would assume this is why our WY Ethics Statutes were originally created in 1998 – to instruct public officials on how exactly to avoid violating Wyoming State Constitution Article 3, Section 46. One would assume – but one would be wrong.
While we point out our issues with WY Ethics Statutes below, bear in mind that most of this issues are firmly anchored in basic common sense and the promise, Oath of Office, that legislators must swear to. Regardless of where our Ethics Statutes are unclear or silent, most legislators are fully aware of a conflict of interest when they choose to ignore it. And so while this website takes into account our WY Ethics Statutes, ultimately we will hold every legislator accountable if they violate Wyoming State Constitution Article 3, Section 46.
The only way we citizens can hold conflicted legislators accountable is by exposing them to educated voters, and attempting to replace them with trustworthy candidates in the next election.
Additionally, it is our hope that any current legislators who are consistently guided by their Oath, will attempt to amend our Ethics statutes to remedy this ongoing problem in the WY State Legislature.
Wyoming Ethics Statutes
Wyoming Ethics Statutes (§9-13-101 through 109) are, in our opinion, vague in some areas, too complicated in others, and generally outdated for what is appropriate in today’s political reality.
For example, the following ethics provision specifies private benefit as only being “a gift”.
9-13-103. Use of title and prestige of public office.
(a) No public official, public member or public employee shall use his office or position for his private benefit.
(b) As used in this section, “private benefit” means the receipt by the public official, public member or public employee of a gift which resulted from his holding that office.
In today’s world, the power and prestige of a public office can offer far greater benefits than “a gift”. Politicians can grow their power and prestige by sponsoring/voting on bills that move certain agendas forward.
There is a significant history of legislators using their law-making power to benefit outside boards and/or non-profits that they serve on.