Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Our View - We need to make sure the watchers are watching the watchers

Originally printed in the Iowa City Press-Citizen, July 31, 2009.

The recent news stories about the early morning Feb. 11 drunken-driving arrest of state Rep. Kerry Burt (D-Waterloo) have brought to light some disturbing questions about how well Iowa's lawmakers can oversee their own rules on ethics and campaign disclosures when the Legislature is in session.

A report filed Wednesday shows lobbyists for the Iowa Pharmacy Association paid about $2,400 in drinks for the Feb. 10 reception that Burt attended a few hours before his arrest. Unfortunately, the association didn't file the report until after reporters recently started asking questions about the Feb. 10 reception in the Embassy Suites hotel in downtown Des Moines -- a reception attended by lawmakers and Gov. Chet Culver.

That's five months late. Iowa law requires that such session function reports be filed within five business days following the date of the reception if it takes place during the Legislature's session and every lawmaker is invited. And it seems unlikely that anyone any time soon would have noticed the report hadn't been filed without the recent interest in Burt's arrest and the additional allegations that Burt failed to make proper tuition payments to a state-run school his children attended.

The pharmacy association CEO Thomas Temple told The Des Moines Register that the late filing was due to administrative oversight.

"We made the House and Senate offices aware of the reception, so it's not like we were trying to hide anything," he said.

But even taking the lobbyists at their word, the situation shows the state House and Senate ethics committees aren't being diligent enough in double-checking the reports. Back in 2005, state lawmakers stripped enforcement authority for session function reports from the nonpartisan Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board and gave it to the ethics committees themselves. One advocacy group, Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement, said Thursday that allowing the lawmakers to oversee themselves has resulted directly in fewer reports being filed.

"What other profession in the state is allowed to regulate themselves?" said Ed Rethman, a group member from West Des Moines, in a news release. "Are doctors allowed to license themselves?"

Burt's alleged behavior during his Feb. 11 arrest highlights the many problems with allowing lawmakers to police themselves. According to police reports, an Ankeny police officer parked at a gas station noticed Burt's car had a flat tire and front-end damage. A preliminary breath test showed Burt had a blood-alcohol content of .131 -- well over the .08 percent legal limit for driving. Burt -- a Waterloo fireman -- then allegedly asked for a professional courtesy from the officers. The report states that Burt also began to name drop that he was a state legislator who had been at a reception and restaurant with the governor and thus couldn't be arrested. Eventually, he was charged with first-offense operating while intoxicated.

We think the allegations against Burt are beyond the pale for an elected official. But we're equally concerned that state law doesn't give the Iowa Ethics and Campaign Disclosure Board enforcement jurisdiction over the filing of these reports from the lobbyists who are paying to wine and dine such officials.

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