Sunday, May 15, 2016 : ETHICAL QUESTIONS RAISED ON MICHIGAN ONLINE GAMBLING BILL (Update)
Marital relationship between bill's proposer and lobbyist could complicate the process.
Michigan state Senator Mike Kowall's initiative to legalise online gambling in his state has run into trouble over ethical questions related to his wife's professional life as a lobbyist.
Activists seeking the tightening of the state's ethics laws have raised the issue, pointing out that the lobbying firm for which Sen. Kowall's wife Eileen works has backed his Senate Bill 889, which proposes that state land casinos offer intrastate online gambling.
The Senator has responded by insisting there is no conflict of interest because his wife is not working directly on that particular project for her lobbying firm, and that he started work on the project long before his wife joined the lobbying company.
However, Common Cause in Michigan expressed concern, with executive director Melanie McElroy commenting this week that the circumstances were "troubling."
"It's troubling Sen. Kowall would sponsor legalization that would enrich MGS – a consulting firm that employs his wife," she said.
Craig Mauger, executive director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network, said the Kowall issue highlights several shortfalls in Michigan law, including clear conflict of interest laws for lawmakers, the lack of a required "cooling off" period before term-limited lawmakers can lobby their former colleagues, and the lack of financial disclosure requirements for elected officials and their spouses.
Local media reports on the Michigan initiative report that Pokerstars parent group Amaya Inc. is a major backer of Kowall's bill. Three officials from Amaya testified in support of SB 889 at a May 4 hearing before the Senate Regulatory Reform Committee, on which Kowall sits.
Amaya's registered lobbyist in Michigan is MGS Consultants, which employs Kowall's wife among its five lobbyists.
Eileen Kowall registered as a lobbyist less than two months after leaving the state House due to term limits at the end of 2014, and she attended the May 4 hearing along with other MGS lobbyists, though she didn't testify.
Last November a study released by the Center for Public Integrity and Global Integrity showed that Michigan ranked last in state ethics and transparency laws, partly because of its weak public records law and an absence of laws requiring personal financial disclosures by lawmakers and top state officials.
Referencing this study, Mauger told local media reporters:
"We often don't know when things like this are happening. On its face, a lawmaker's spouse lobbying for an entity that is working with a lawmaker that does seem to be a conflict."
However, Jeremiah Mankopf, managing partner of MGS, which has been lobbying for Amaya since 2007, said he did not see any conflict, explaining that a large number of Lansing lobbying firms will be working on the legalization, because of the large number of casinos and other interests affected by it.
Mankopf revealed that he is the lead lobbyist on SB 889, but wouldn't answer directly when asked whether Eileen Kowall had done any work on the bill.
He added that Sen. Kowall's work on Internet gaming legalization was not a factor in hiring Eileen Kowall, who mostly works on education issues.