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The Case of Roy Ray: Conflict or Not?
By Stephen Smith
February 11, 1999

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BRIBERY IS A CRIME for public officials most everywhere in the United States. It's a black-and-white picture of wrongdoing. But conflict-of-interest cases are often drawn in subtler shades of gray, where one person's influence peddling may be another's savvy use of power. Take, for example, the story of Ohio Senator Roy Ray.

Sen. Roy Ray

Last year, Ohio newspapers disclosed that Ray, a Republican from Akron, had earned more than $160,000 as a private financial consultant for the Ohio Edison power company. Ray says he provided financial advice to the utility in a merger deal. Six months after Ray got his last consulting check, he sponsored a bill allowing Ohio power companies including Ohio Edison -- to charge their customers for $8 billion in past investments, mostly in nuclear power plants.

Ray's consulting deal with Ohio Edison was not listed on his financial-disclosure report. Under Ohio law, it didn't have to be. The Center for Public Integrity, a Washington based, nonpartisan government watchdog , gave Ohio a "barely passing" grade in a survey it conducted of state ethics and disclosure rules.

Ohio Capitol

Ohio State Capitol

A political group called Ohio Citizen Action chastised Ray for his arrangement with the utility. "The voters and the public would never have known about this if it had not come out in documents that had to be filed through the Ohio Edison merger," says Sandy Buchanan, Ohio Citizen Action Executive Director. "It wasn't until the newspapers brought out the information about Senator Ray that he then said, "Oh, I guess I won't vote on bills regarding Ohio Edison."

But Ray had already voted on several bills favoring Ohio Edison, Buchanan says, and voted on key appointments to the state Public Utilities Commission.

"It may not be illegal, but it sure doesn't pass the smell test and it does show how very weak our disclosure laws and conflict of interest laws are in Ohio, " Buchanan says.

Senator Ray did not break any Ohio laws. In fact, he followed the rules. Shortly after he began consulting for the power company, Ray asked for, and got, a green light from the Joint Ethics Committee of the Ohio Legislature.

Wide-open Loophole

According to the Center for Public Integrity, Ohio finished 22nd among states in a survey of disclosure laws. See the loopholesin Ohio's laws.

But this ethics committee does its work in secret, so no one but Ray and his fellow lawmakers knew about the deal. Ray says that, as chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, he's an easy target for criticism.

"Anyone who wants to can say there is an implied conflict-of-interest on any piece of legislation that we are involved in, " Ray says. "You could say I have a conflict-of-interest because I give money to the University of Akron and I used to teach there. "

Under Ohio law, Ray was required to disclose the income from his consulting firm, but not the names of his clients. Republican Representative Jeff Jacobson wants to make Ohio's disclosure laws tougher to close such loopholes. Current law requires a legislator to say if he or she had been hired by a lobbyist, Jacobson says, but the law is silent about lawmakers who get paid by the lobbyist's employer. "I've proposed very sweeping reform that would require people who hire lobbyists to disclose how much they're paying, who they're paying it to, and if there are public officials involved. We want to make sure that voters know about every business relationship between a public official and people who hire lobbyists, " Jacobson says.

Ethics and disclosure reform is generally an unpopular topic in state capitols across the country. It's a messy and sensitive issue that lawmakers prefer to avoid. One of the most powerful state legislators in Ohio harbors a certain contempt for such laws. He's Senate President Richard Finan, a voluble, 27-year capitol veteran, and a co-chair of the ethics committee.

"... we could pass laws until the cows come home, and they're not going to be ethical."

- Richard Finan
Ohio Legislator

"Those legislators that want to be ethical are going to be ethical, " Finan declares. "Those legislators that don't want to be ethical, we could pass laws until the cows come home, and they're not going to be ethical. They're going to find way to get around whatever laws we put in shape. "

Finan adds that ethics laws have deepened partisan divisions in the legislature because lobbyists can no longer take lawmakers out to dinner. Such meetings often brought Democrats and Republicans together, he says, on the neutral turn of a lobbyist's expense account.

In Finan's view, a friendly night at the steak house meant more civility at the state house.

It's not just lawmakers who chafe at more aggressive disclosure laws. Some political scientists say the ethics movement has gone too far. Critics, such as former Ohio Democratic Representative Wayne Jones, say the ethics issue has been pushed by journalists and political interest groups, not by voters. Wayne says that disclosure paperwork, and the forced declaration of private financial data, deters good people from running for office. In the mid-1990s, Jones was one of several lawmakers who got in trouble for not properly disclosing outside speaking fees.

"It got to be so much of a hassle to be in public office," Jones says. "I'm not putting my family through it. I've got three young boys, a nice wife. I don't need it. "

Jones is now a full-time partner in a big Akron law firm. He argues that ethics laws actually weaken the quality of representation that Ohio's 11 million residents get in Columbus because talented professionals won't bother to run for office.

"If you're an expert in a given area, chances are you do it for a living. And if you do it for a living, suddenly you've got a conflict. They're starting to say that lawyers have a conflict that are help drafting domestic-relations laws if they practice in domestic-relations court. I want that person's expertise. Otherwise the lobbyists are going to tell people what it should be and they're going to say they're the experts and we have to listen to them. "

Jones says the legislative salaries of $42,000 - $70,000 a year are too low to lure top-drawer professionals away from their outside jobs.

Charles Lewis, CPI's executive director, says his organization has nothing against the notion of a citizen legislature. "What I'm saying is: go ahead and have part-timers. Even have people serving on committees where they know something about the subject. Don't let them vote on it if it affects their company directly. That is a fundamental principle of ethics, " Lewis says.

In spite of the ethics controversy, Senator Ray breezed to re-election last fall. He says he's quit all outside consulting - at least for now - because his wife doesn't want to see his name in the newspapers again.

"I just clip coupons, " Ray says. He also earns about $50,000 a year as a Senate committee chair.

In any case, this is Ray's last tour-of-duty in Columbus. Ohio now has term limits, and after this go-round, Ray's term is up.

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