Commentary: Michigan's low integrity standards

Feb 12, 2013

If you want proof we need sterner ethics laws for Michigan’s elected officials, you need only consider former State Rep. Paul Opsommer, who until this year was chair of the House Transportation Committee. 

Term limits then forced him to give up his seat in the legislature. While he was there, he supported his fellow Republican, Governor Rick Snyder, on most issues. Except for one: Whether to build a new bridge across the Detroit River.

Opsommer, who lives in the small town of DeWitt, outside Lansing, was rabidly opposed to the New International Trade Crossing. He did all he could to stop it.

He wrote fiercely anti-bridge columns in a number of Michigan papers. He campaigned unsuccessfully last fall for the constitutional amendment that would have enshrined Matty Moroun‘s monopoly in the state constitution, claiming falsely, among other things, that a new bridge would “indebt the people of Michigan to a foreign power,” and hinting the state would end up giving a hundred million dollars in community benefits to Detroit, with “no strings attached.”

Opsommer had taken campaign contributions from Moroun, as did many others, some of whom got more. But what do you suppose Paul Opsommer did as soon as he was forced to leave government? He took a job as a lobbyist for Matty Moroun, working both in Lansing and Washington.

What is perhaps most incredible is that he claims there is no conflict of interest here. That‘s because he is technically an employee of the trucking company at the heart of the Moroun empire, CenTra, incorporated.

However, he did tell a newspaper in Midland that he would love to work on international bridge policy, because, he said “I have a greater understanding of the transparency issues.”

You just couldn’t make this stuff up. There are those who think the reasons for Opsommer’s zeal to carry Moroun’s water in the legislature are themselves now pretty transparent. He got a cushy job out of it, but if anyone cares the least bit about ethics in government, there’s no way this deal passes the smell test.

Many states have laws forbidding those in elected office or serving in high appointed positions from immediately crossing the line and taking jobs, especially lobbying jobs, for firms which they previously regulated or oversaw. But not Michigan. We have virtually no ethics laws, and, as the Lansing State Journal recently noted, very little oversight over how lobbyists spend to influence policy. We do know they spend twice as much as ten years ago.

What Opsommer did was a disgrace, and he’s not alone. After all, a woman who was one of our Supreme Court justices a month ago is now awaiting sentencing by a federal judge for real estate fraud. The Center for Public Integrity recently gave Michigan a grade of F for integrity, and said we deserved even worse when it came to overseeing lobbyists.

The governor and the legislature should work to enact tough new ethics laws that can give us at least some confidence that our lawmakers aren’t bought and paid for. But as far as I know, nobody in government is trying to do anything about this. Which just might be the biggest shame of all.