1996Public Service

Hog-Tied on ethics

A News & Observer editorial
February 23, 1995

Loose ethical standards in the General Assembly let special interests, such as the hog industry, gain special advantages. Legislators need to look closely at their own practices as well as the industry's.

The tax breaks, exemptions from zoning control and lax environmental oversight enjoyed by North Carolina's hog industry didn't come about by magic. There's nothing magical about the General Assembly's easy-going ethical atmosphere, which allows legislators to wallow in matters by which they stand to gain financially.

Case in point: Wendell Murphy, the state's king of pork. For 10 years the head of Murphy Farms Inc. represented Duplin County in the legislature. During that time he co-sponsored or had a hand in several pieces of legislation that benefited the fast-growing hog industry.

As The N&O's Pat Stith and Joby Warrick report in their series, the effect has been to help protect the industry from rational regulation that benefits the public at large.

That Murphy acted openly is not so much a testament to his brashness as it is evidence of the legislative mind-set. Special interests can use power to help themselves, and never mind whether the public comes out a loser. That's not solely to blame Murphy or any other person. It is the General Assembly's collective failing.

And the legislature has a collective responsibility to the public to be a good steward of its members' ethics. Yet its Joint Committee on Ethics has been a cowering puppy, not a watchdog: It hasn't held a meeting in nearly four years.

Now that a new session has begun, legislators need to repeal laws that grant unwarranted special privileges to the pork industry and enact decent environmental safeguards. They also need to go further and take a look at their own ethics rules.

As interpreted, the existing Legislative Ethics Act allows lawmakers too much leeway to decide for themselves whether their personal investments or business dealings create conflicts of interest.

The law's disclosure requirements also let legislative candidates get away with providing uselessly vague information about their financial interests. Describing his real estate holdings in 1990, for instance, Murphy listed the ownership of "land," "land," "land," "land," "land," "land" and "land" in various counties. That stinks, stinks and stinks. Full, accurate disclosure of legislators' holdings and dealings is essential in determining whether they are acting to help the public or themselves.

While they are at it, legislators need to end the two-year statute of limitations for violations of campaign laws. Murphy and a leader of the turkey industry, Marvin Johnson of House of Raeford Farms Inc., exceeded limits on contributions when they each gave $100,000 to then-Sen. Harold W. Hardison's 1988 campaign for lieutenant governor. (Hardison earlier had pushed through bills eliminating the sales tax on hog and poultry houses and related equipment.) They could not be prosecuted, though, because the contributions came to light more than two years later.

Newcomers and old hands alike promised change in the General Assembly this year. They can start by making the place more responsive to the public's needs and less of a playground for shrewd private interests.

Murphy's Law
Public Service 1996
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