Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Today's reading for Rep. Kathy Stein

While the media snores, here are the facts about contributions to state lawmakers from the developers of the HPV vaccine.

I don't remember who it was who told me a few years back about a reporter who came to a major Kentucky newspaper from New York, and who was appalled at the laziness of his newly acquired colleagues. The concept of investigative reporting, he observed, was almost unknown to members of the media in this state, whom, he thought, spent entirely too much time in their office cubicles, and not nearly enough time snooping out the facts behind the obvious.

The story was related to me in the context of the Kentucky Education Reform Act of 1990 (KERA), the propaganda for which was swallowed hook, line, and sinker by the major Kentucky media, until a few of us pointed out the very obvious problems with it, at which point a small handful of them were energetic enough to actually look at KERA for what it was. But the debate over mandatory HPV vaccinations has revealed once again the lack of interest of the state media in doing any journalistic heavy lifting.

A case in point is the controversy over donations by the developer of Gardasil, the HPV vaccination, to state legislators who have been considering a mandate for the drug, an issue which finally hit the media yesterday in a Lexington Herald-Leader story about State Rep. Kathy Stein's demand that Senate Majority Floor leader Dan Kelly issue an apology to her and other lawmakers for erroneously accusing them of taking money from the drug company.

Come again?

First of all, Kelly, who made the comments on "Front Page with Sue Wiley," was talking about the issue in other states (whose reporters apparently dig a little deeper than those here) where this has been the case.

Secondly, is Stein denying that Kentucky lawmakers have received money from Merck? If she is, she--not Dan Kelly--has some apologizing to do.

Here is what The Institute on Money in State Politics says about Merck contributions in Kentucky in its report, "Names in the News: Merck & Company." This report was laboriously obtained by first sitting down at the chair in front of my laptop (a complicated procedure), then pressing the "on" button, an effort which necessitated the expenditure of who knows how many of the calories I had gained from the Snickers bar I had just consumed, and then entering "www.followthemoney.org," which required--count 'em--22 whole keystrokes:
  • Total Merck contributions to state lawmakers across the country, 2000-2006: $2,450,352.
  • Total Merck contributions to Kentucky state lawmakers, 2000-2006: $40,225.
Who did they go to? A wide variety of lawmakers, some for the HPV mandate, and some against. Is this a surprise? No. Drug companies--and every other business interest--give money to candidates all the time. So what is the problem?

Here's the problem:

First, if you have taken money from the developer of the drug, and you do vote for the mandate--particularly if you have some influential role in its passage--you create the appearance of impropriety. Does it mean you voted for the mandate because you received money? No. But everyone seems pretty much agreed these days that when it comes to being a public official, the standard is not just actual impropriety, but even the appearance of it. That's why we have things like legislative ethics commissions. They deal in almost nothing but the appearance, rather than the actual incidence of influence peddling.

Second, when people like Kathy Stein publicly challenge someone who states that Merck has been giving money to public officials and questions this, the issue then becomes who is telling the truth.

Here's the truth (as revealed by the toilsome process of a few more keystrokes, and--pant, pant--a site search):
  • A number of Kentucky state lawmakers took money from Merck & Co. from 2000-2006.
  • The money from Merck was given to lawmakers from both parties.
  • The people who took money from Merck fall out on both sides of the issue.
  • People who are criticizing Merck contributions to supporters of the HPV mandate and who are not supporters of the mandate took money from Merck.
  • Some of of the people who sat in key positions contributing to the passage of the HPV mandate are among the people who received contributions from Merck.
None of these is a problem, except for the last one, because of that little matter of the appearance of impropriety.

Who are we talking about? Tom Burch, he the chairman of the House Health & Welfare Committee that approved HB 345, the HPV mandate, in the House.

According to followthemoney.org, State Rep. Tom Burch received $500 on 2002, $800 in 2004, and $500 in 2006. There were other lawmakers on the committee who voted for the bill who received money from Merck, and a few others who voted for the bill on the House floor. This doesn't mean it is the reason they voted for the bill, but at minimum--the rock bottom expectation on these kinds of issues--is that they should have disclosed that fact when they voted.

Should they go to jail? No. Not even close. Should they have made a point to mention the contributions in the process of passage of the bill? Yes.

Oh, and one final question: Should I be the one having to point this out because the media is either too lazy or refuses to do it?

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