Conflict of Interest Spelled

The cries of partisanship following Secretary of State Gigi Dennis’ recent decision to issue emergency campaign finance regulations that were requested by Republican operatives and are being challenged by unions and others are becoming all too familiar.

Nationwide, ethics experts are saying that secretaries of state have a built in conflict of interest when doing their jobs, or at the very least, a strong appearance of one.

The most infamous case of all, of course, is former Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, who is now running for a seat in the U.S. Senate. It was Harris who made decisions during the recount of votes in the 2000 presidential election that made  Democrats cry foul.In Ohio, in an effort to avoid the appearance of a conflict, Republican Secretary of State Kenneth Blackwell, who is running for governor, has handed over his election responsibilities to an aide while he campaigns.

But Blackwell has already been subject to criticism during his gubernatorial bid. In January 2005, Blackwell caught flak for sending out a fundraising letter thanking Republicans for “helping deliver” Ohio for President George W. Bush, and asking for illegal corporate campaign contributions for his race for governor, according to a report in The Columbus Dispatch (available for charge). Blackwell’s campaign said that the inclusion of a sentence saying that “corporate & personal checks” were welcome was an “oversight” and that the campaign would return any contributions from corporations, which are illegal.

Meanwhile, in April, the Toledo Blade reported that Blackwell has accepted more than $1 million in campaign contributions from employees of firms seeking business with the statewide offices he’s had over the past 12 years. The same investigation showed that financial institutions that have given to Blackwell, who served as state treasurer before becoming secretary of state in 1999, have also given $1.34 million to the Ohio Republican Party. The party has given at least $1.29 million to Blackwell’s campaigns.

Nationwide, Blackwell is among 20 secretaries of state running for office while they also serve as the state’s election official, according to Most of these officials do not recuse themselves from election duties.

“The problem is that even if a secretary of state is making decisions responsibly and on a nonpartisan basis, the appearance is always going to be suspect when you have a partisan elected official making these decisions,” says Toby Moore, project manager for the Carter-Baker Commission on Federal Election Reform.

“It is a national issue particularly as secretaries of state have become more of a stepping stone for higher office. More and more secretaries of state are running for the U.S. House, the Senate, and governor and that just increases the compromises.”

Dennis, a former Republican member of the Colorado legislature, is not running for re-election or for higher office, although her name was mentioned as a possible running mate for Republican Bob Beauprez in his bid for governor before he picked Janet Rowland.

Dennis was appointed by Gov. Bill Owens to finish out a term vacated by Donnetta Davidson; however, the office is elective in Colorado. In this Colorado is like most states. Of the 47 states that have an office of secretary of state, Colorado is one of 35 where voters select the official. In nine states the governor appoint the secretary of state, and in three states, the legislatures do.

However, about half the states have independent election boards that oversee campaign finance regulations, says Bob Stern, president of the Center for Governmental Studies, a California-based government ethics think tank. Typically these boards have members from the Democratic and Republican parties, as does the U.S. Federal Election Commission.

The Carter-Baker Commission is working on a proposal that would move election responsibility to a nonpartisan appointment, “someone who is insulated from political pressures,” says Moore.