Recent History of Ethics Debate Doesn’t Encourage

March 17, 2016

Inside Insight

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Apparent bullying, loopholes, secret sign-offs for unethical conduct … Welcome to the debate over ‘ethics reform.’

Last June, The Nerve published a piece that may have struck uncareful readers as a merely “newsy” story about a temporarily hot controversy at the State House. In truth, however, the implications of the story were pretty astounding.

A national gun-rights group with a state affiliate had become alarmed that a bill then in the legislature – and supported by the governor – would force groups like theirs to disclose their top financial supporters to state authorities. The group was right to be alarmed: the measure, which purports to regulate “electioneering,” could easily be used to shut down criticism of politicians by organizations that have no interest in campaigns or elections.

When the gun-rights group alerted its members about the bill, the governor’s office received a barrage of calls and emails urging the governor to stand against it. The governor’s office responded – this is the fascinating part – not by calling the organization to find out the reasons for its opposition, but instead by directing the Ethics Commission to make the call. The group’s leader understandably interpreted that as an attempt to suggest that the Commission would be scrutinizing the group if it continued to tell its members that the bill in question, H.3722, could be used to silence criticism of politicians.

Was it an attempt to “bully,” as the group’s CEO alleged? We don’t know, but it sure seemed strange for the governor to direct an entirely separate agency’s ethics attorney to put a call in to its headquarters.

In any case, the omnibus ethics bill containing the provision is still alive, having been passed by the House already. A standalone bill containing only that provision has also passed the House.

A separate omnibus ethics bill, H.3184, no longer contains the language on electioneering. Great news, although a close reading of that mammoth bill suggests that proponents of actual ethics reform will be sorely disappointed: The income disclosure requirements contain suspiciously worded exceptions on both the private and public income side; and the self-policing provision, supposedly taking away lawmakers’ power to police each other’s ethics violations, simply reshuffles the current arrangement. Worse, it allows lawmakers to get their colleagues to okay each other’s questionable ethics practices in non-public hearings.

The ethics debate goes on, but it looks less and less concerned with actual ethics.