The Center for Public Integrity (CPI), a government watchdog, has examined conflicts of interest between the public and private lives of state lawmakers since 1998.
In their ongoing report, "50 States Watch," the group analyzes legislators' political decisions in light of their business interests and the sources of their campaign contributions.
In a recently published segment of this report, the CPI pointed a disapproving finger at State Rep. Jim Aslanides (R-Coshocton). According to Aslanides' financial disclosure statements, he earned between $125,000 and $250,000 from 1998 to 2000 as president of MFC Drilling, Inc., an oil and gas drilling company based in his east-central Ohio district. During this same period, Aslanides also earned between $78,000 and $180,000 in rental income from the oil industry and at least $562,000 in oil and gas royalties.
Ohio's financial disclosure statements require lawmakers to provide ranges of income from a source, not precise amounts.
Aslanides also sat on the board of trustees of the Ohio Oil and Gas Association until May 31, served as governor of the Independent Petroleum Association of America and is a member of Southeastern Ohio Oil & Gas Association.
Successful in business, Aslanides has also risen rapidly in Ohio's General Assembly. Appointed in 1999 to a vacant seat, he easily won election the next year.
Aslanides chairs the Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee and sits on the Energy and Environment and Health and Family Services committees.
According to the CPI, Aslanides' chairmanship led to a conflict between his business interests and his role as a state legislator. The article implies Aslanides "helped sandbag a proposal to ban oil and natural gas drilling permanently in Lake Erie," not allowing the committee to vote on the legislation.
According to CPI, Aslanides also transferred the bill to the House Rules and Reference committee only after news reports publicized this potential conflict of interests.
Aslanides contends he recognized this conflict independently; and after holding one hearing required by House rules and an additional hearing requested by the bill's sponsor, he transferred it out of his committee.
"I transferred the bill before any mention of conflict of interest," Aslanides says.
However, Aslanides moved the bill on June 13, 11 days after a June 2 article in The Port Clinton News-Herald, like the CPI article, highlighted his financial ties to Ohio's oil and gas industry and the control he wielded over legislation sensitive to that industry. Prior to this transfer, the bill had sat dormant in Aslanides committee for five weeks.
Whatever influenced Aslanides to move the bill, his opposition to it was no secret.
"I would not want there to be a ban," Aslanides told the CPI. "I think to eliminate that potential now would be a mistake when our nation is hungry for energy. And people these days not only depend on reliable energy, they expect it."
But after publication of the CPI report and coverage in both The Columbus Dispatch and The Cleveland Plain Dealer, Aslanides has performed an about-face.
"I see no circumstance that would warrant drilling on Lake Erie," he said.
Regardless of his current position, Aslanides clearly expressed opposition to the bill banning drilling in Lake Erie when that bill sat in his committee.
Even if Aslanides transferred the bill voluntarily, it seems the General Assembly's procedures are sorely lacking. No rules, no procedures, no oversight committee prevented Aslanides from solely controlling the movement of legislation that obviously conflicted with his business interests.
Ohioans cannot rely on politicians to avoid conflicts of interest. Nor should they rely on the press to uncover such glaring conflicts. The legislature should establish rules to build a solid wall between lawmakers' personal interests and public duties.