Sketchy Things Happening with the “Ethics Bill”


The more lawmakers amend the ethics bill, the more we’re put in mind of that Rolling Stones song:

You can’t always get what you want,
But if you try sometimes, well you just might find,
You get what you need.

Well, lawmakers are certainly trying.

The most recent version passed by a House Judiciary subcommittee contains a change to allowable campaign fund expenses. Section 8-13-1348 of the subcommittee-passed bill allows not only for payment but “reimbursement” of “reasonable and necessary” travel expenses associated with the campaign or the office.

Further, the amended version defines “official responsibilities of the officeholder” – something not currently defined by law. It’s worth quoting the passage in full:

Official responsibilities of the officeholder shall include, but not be limited to, political party events, official appearances or meetings for which reimbursement is not offered by the governmental entity, and educational forums or conventions to which an officeholder is invited in their official capacity. [emphasis added]

Many readers will be aware that the Speaker of the House is under a grand jury investigation for reimbursing himself from campaign funds for activities not in conjunction with his official duties. In 2012, the Speaker’s spokesman defended his boss from the charges by claiming, among other things, that the expenses – including a large number of private plane trips – were part of his official duties as House Speaker.

We checked – and those duties aren’t defined anywhere. Well, until now.

It would appear, then, that the latest version of the bill – the bill that, if passed, will be hailed as major “ethics reform” – is tailored to give the Speaker legal and/or political ammunition to fight the grand jury investigation.

Further, House subcommittee members included a highly controversial provision of a bill that failed to meet the May 1 crossover deadline and is yet to even be considered by the full House. The provision of H.4453 added to the ethics bill would allow public officials determined to have misused campaign funds to face no penalties, so long as they reimburse the funds within 30 days’ notice from the appropriate supervisory office. As the The State noted of the original bill, this would be equivalent to allowing burglars to avoid charges if they simply return stolen property.

Provisions of H.4452 were also included in the subcommittee amendment. These provisions specify that campaign funds could be used to pay for any reasonable and necessary expenses associated with a campaign or office. Current law specifies only travel expenses and the cost of food and beverage consumed by the candidate and his or her immediate family at a political event are eligible for payment from campaign funds. The provisions requires, moreover, that any reimbursement for travel made by a campaign must be made at the IRS rate, and the payment/reimbursement of any travel, lodging, food or beverage expenses must be for the purpose of campaigning or part of an officeholder’s official responsibilities.

Still another provision would create a Commission on Ethics Enforcement and Disclosure. This twelve-member “super commission” would be heavily weighted in the legislature’s favor, with two members of each chamber serving on the committee, in addition to four members appointed to the commission by current Supreme Court justices whom the legislature elects. The Commission’s jurisdiction would extend to:

  • All statewide constitutional officers of the state and their staffs.
  • All members of General Assembly and staffs, including employees of caucuses.
  • Candidates for a state or local public office, except for the General Assembly, filled by popular election, whether or not elected to such office.
  • Judges.
  • Candidates for election to the legislature, whether elected or not.
  • Any person holding an elected or appointed position for any political subdivision of the state and their staffs.
  • Members of all boards and commissions.
  • Any lobbyist or lobbyist principal who has failed to register.

While all three branches of government would now fall under the purview of this commission, there will be no check on any one branch’s appointment to the commission, as is currently the case with the State Ethics Commission. Nominees to that agency must be confirmed by the General Assembly. What that means, in practice, is that the legislature could pack the super commission with cronies and the governor would have no power to do anything about it.

Another clarifying point: While all three branches of government would be investigated by this super commission, all officials would be punished/sanctioned by their current sanctioning body. In other words, lawmakers will still determine the punishment of their own members through the House and Senate ethics committees – yet another manifestation of the kind of self-policing “ethics reform” was supposed to do away with.

One highly interesting note regarding judges falling under the purview of the Commission on Ethics Enforcement and Disclosure: complaints against them will now be subject to a four-year statute of limitations – which is not currently the case with the State Office of Disciplinary Counsel, the entity currently tasked with receiving, screening, investigating, and, as necessary, prosecuting complaints made against both judges and lawyers.

A hearing on this bill (and others) will be held at 2:30 today.

UPDATE: The House Judiciary Committee voted unanimously to send the subcommittee-amended version of H.3945 to the full House.

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