Trust Busters

| Tue Sep. 27, 2005 6:42 PM EDT

The other day, discussing Bill Frist's stock scandals, I was all agog that legislators in the United States are allowed to "own or even trade stocks directly" during their time in office. Turns out that Mother Jones ran a story about this very issue just last month:

In June, Rep. Judy Biggert (R-Ill.) introduced legislation designating September as Life Insurance Awareness Month. "Losing a family member is painful enough without encountering new financial difficulties," Biggert said, adding that she hoped her congressional decree would "draw attention to the importance of life insurance to the economic security of all Americans."

Life insurance is certainly important to Biggert's own economic security. According to financial disclosure data filed with Congress, her husband has invested a chunk of the couple's net worth in companies that sell life insurance, among them Aflac, Legg Mason, M&T Bancorp, Wells Fargo, and Synovus Financial Corp. It's impossible to know exactly how much money the Biggerts have invested in the insurance and financial-services sectors, because lawmakers need only list their assets in broad ranges (such as $15,001-$50,000) rather than specific amounts, but the total falls between $502,024 and $1,455,000.

Biggert has another connection to the financial industry: She serves on the House committee in charge of regulating it. Isn't that a conflict of interest? In most government agencies it would be. Federal agency officials are generally prohibited from buying and selling stock in the companies they oversee. But Congress long ago exempted itself from ethics rules regarding investments. At one time this exemption made sense: Farmers wanted to be able to serve on the Agriculture Committee without selling their farms, for example. But many lawmakers now interpret this exception as carte blanche to invest after taking office.

Frist—supposedly—placed his stocks in a "blind trust" for political reasons, because that's what he had promised voters in Tennessee, and not for ethical reasons. Apparently there aren't any ethical requirements to avoid conflicts of interest. Meanwhile, CNN reports that Frist's "blind trust" may not have been so blind after all. (The SEC is investigating whether inside information prompted Frist to dump his HCA stock weeks before the share price tumbled.)

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