NH legislators say conflicts are unavoidable
"Many people in the Legislature have conflicts of interest," said Rep. Neal Kurk, a Republican who has represented Weare since being elected in 1986.
The issue of conflict of interest came to the forefront last week when state Senate President Peter Bragdon, R-Milford, accepted a $180,000 job as the head of the New Hampshire Local Government Center. Many critics said Bragdon, by not resigning his role in the Senate, created a conflict of interest by agreeing to head an agency that is in a contentious battle - including a state Supreme Court lawsuit - with the state Bureau of Securities Regulation.
The key, Campbell said, is whether a legislator would be uniquely affected, financially or otherwise, by a bill or debate, rather than it affecting a class of people, such as lawyers, firefighters or teachers.
And even when there is a conflict, "there is nothing that precludes these folks from participating or voting, so long as they disclose," Kurk said.
If legislators believe they could have a conflict with a particular bill but want to participate in debates and votes, or if they wish to recuse themselves, they must file a declaration of intent with the clerk of their chamber.
"If everybody had to recuse themselves with every little thing that came along, there would be nobody left to vote on things," Bragdon said.
Rep. William O'Brien, R-Mont Vernon, who for two years served as House speaker, said he would ask all legislators for their resumes so he could place people in committees where their knowledge would be most beneficial.
White said the benefit of having a citizen Legislature is that the state "is getting all of this different expertise for $100 a year that they wouldn't get elsewhere."
"I think one of the great things about a citizen Legislature is that people bring various talents and professional experience to the table," Campbell said. "It's more of a strength of the institution of the House than a weakness."
"It does make it really difficult to deal with the conflict issue," he said. "We've always relied on the goodwill of individual legislators. It's been left somewhat ambiguous. There are a lot of gray areas."
"They're outnumbered by the hundreds of others who are not in that profession," he said.
Should someone wish to complain that a legislator has a conflict that wasn't disclosed, the Legislative Ethics Committee is where the issue is decided. The committee handles all forms of ethical questions, from receipt of gifts to allegations of misuse of power to conflicts of interest.
Gross said the committee will issue interpretive rulings to clarify statutes and guidelines; provide advisory opinions at the request of individual legislators, legislative officers and staff involving ethics statutes and guidelines; and process complaints accusing legislators, officers or staff of violating ethics rules.
Richard M. Lambert, the committee's executive administrator, said the committee has received a total of 66 complaints in the 22 years it has existed. Of those, most were dismissed or informally resolved, he said. Six, though, resulted in recommendations of discipline.