On 21 occasions, Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, voted on oil and gas legislation.
On Wednesday, before the 22nd vote, Pearce disclosed that an oil company has leased drilling rights on his property.
Democrats have requested an ethics committee review, and say Pearce should be removed as chairman of the Senate Resources and Environment Committee. Pearce tells the Associated Press that he has followed the spirit and the letter of ethics rules, and says he is the victim of a political witch hunt.
Either way, this fiasco reveals yet another hole in the Legislature’s lax ethics guidelines.
First off, I’m not buying Pearce’s claim that he met the spirit of ethics rules. If he had, he would have been upfront, from the outset, about the lease. In an interview with the Statesman’s Rocky Barker Thursday, Pearce said he had never thought of the potential conflict until Wednesday’s vote; that simply doesn’t pass the smell test.
But let’s accept, for the sake of argument, Pearce’s claim that his 11th-hour disclosure met the letter of the rules. Pearce says that the Senate rules require such a disclosure before a floor vote — and, as such, he did what he had to do.
If that is the case, then the rules are woefully weak. The rules turn a blind eye to something Pearce and every other legislator knows — that the real blood-and-guts work of lawmaking occurs in committees. This is where bills are vetted, amended, advanced and scuttled. In committees, chairpersons such as Pearce are at the peak of their power. They can decide which legislation makes its way onto the calendar — and what legislation doesn’t.
No, the oil and gas issue didn’t suddenly confront Pearce on the Senate floor Wednesday. The legislation — supported by industry, including Snake River Oil and Gas, which holds a lease on Pearce’s property — went through Pearce’s committee. Same for oil and gas rules, approved earlier in the session. The indisputable fact is that Pearce has been a pivotal figure in a session-long oil and gas debate; for most of the session, he kept his personal stake to himself.
This final point would feel like piling on if it weren’t so pertinent: The Pearce mess arises at the end of a disappointing 2012 session on the ethics reform front. Last week, Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill said he wants to see the Senate make some early “baby steps” on ethics reform.
This Legislature has a long way to go, one baby step at a time.