State lawmakers dismiss ethics concerns raised by open government advocates

Delaware Public Media | by Sarah Mueller

A former state lawmaker’s new business venture is raising ethical questions about legislators’ conflicts of interest.

Former State Rep. Melanie George Smith is being criticized after seeming to directly benefit from sustainability legislation she sponsored last year. George Smith set up a consulting firm to help businesses take advantage of her bill shortly before leaving office.

State Rep. John Kowalko was one of a handful of legislators that did not vote for the bill—and says he’s considering trying to repeal it. He argues because the state doesn’t verify claims businesses make to get the certificate, the public can be misled about their sustainability efforts.

“There’s no harm in repealing this because it could be used as a tool to give a false impression with the state imprimatur of approval on it,” he said. “So let’s repeal it and I think that argument should resonate.”

In a statement, George Smith says she believes the legislature will do what they believe is in Delaware’s best interest.

But Kowalko said he does not feel there’s a need for new House ethics rules.

John Flaherty, with the Delaware Coalition for Open Government, said calls the situation one more example of state lawmakers with conflicts of interests. He said lawmakers should follow the spirit of the state ethics code – rather than legislative rules which hinge on self-reporting and fellow members complaining to the ethics committee.

“The General Assembly is great on telling everybody else how to act,” he said. “But as far as their conduct is concerned, there really is no checks and balances on the General Assembly, on the 62 members, and I think that’s a shortcoming in public policy.”

Flaherty points to other examples he argues show lawmakers’ conflicts of interest or appearance of impropriety.

He said Republican State Rep. Mike Ramone should have recused himself from a 2017 vote on a bill involving blockchain technology because of his related investments. Ramone has denied any wrongdoing. And he argues House Majority Leader Valerie Longhurst is conflicted because she works for the Hockessin Police Athletic League – which receives state funding. He also pointed to former Newark lawmaker Michael Barbieri, who chaired the House’s health committee while the his addiction treatment center gained state contracts.

Longhurst, who chairs the House Ethics Committee, said she’s not planning new ethics legislation.

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