Is Legislative Self-Policing Really a Problem?
IF AN ETHICS REFORM BILL ALLOWS LAWMAKERS TO CONTINUE POLICING THEMSELVES, IS IT REALLY AN ETHICS REFORM BILL?
During a brief debate on H. 3945 – a bill most legislators and the governor characterize as meaningful ethics reform – Senator Luke Rankin (R-Horry, and Chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee) referred to the process of the Senate Ethics Committee’s past investigations of its members as “progress, and functional, and transparent, and [an] efficient process.” He went on to declare that the Senate is “not the problem,” that they have “governed and investigated … and held up their membership and judged them according to fair and open rules and procedure.” He then asked critics of the current system to “please help [the body] identify within this system what is wrong and what needs to be addressed and fixed.”
To say that the Senate Ethics Committee has investigated and judged its members based on fair and open procedures is wide of the mark. In 2010, after a preliminary investigation into former Senator Jake Knotts, the committee met in executive session – hardly transparent – and decided to move forward with an investigation into the former senator’s campaign finances. The investigation occurred in executive sessions. And while the members of the Committee found that the former senator had committed multiple ethics and campaign finance violations (violation of state law), the Committee did not refer the matter to the Attorney General, as state law requires when an investigation alleges criminal violations. Rather, the Committee issued a “public reprimand” of Knotts and ordered him to keep better records and reimburse the contributions he took over the limit.
Contrast that with former Senator Robert Ford’s investigation and it would be hard to conclude that there is any set of standards that the committee uses to judge its members. It’s more like when there is a lot of pressure on the legislature to reform a process that clearly doesn’t work they find a legislator to be the example. Ford was accused of using campaign funds since July 2009 for such things as: car payments, gym memberships, adult superstore items and a male-enhancement drug, diverting approximately $19,000 in campaign contributions to his personal account, making multiple over-the-limit cash withdrawals from his campaign account, and multiple other violations. Ford’s hearings were not kept private – in fact, they were live-streamed. The former senator resigned before the Ethics Committee could issue any findings, but the Committee still referred the case to the Attorney General’s office for further investigation – also unlike former Senator Knotts’ case.
Those are just two instances in which the Senate Ethics Committee conducted two investigations very differently, and the outcomes were very different for their members. There are also instances when, it would appear, the Committee avoids an investigation into an ethics violation altogether, as for example when a very powerful senator listed his stock ownership in a company receiving state payments on his required state income-disclosure form for the first time in years. State law prohibits lawmakers from “entering into contracts with state agencies involving businesses in which the lawmaker or an individual with whom he is associated has an ownership interest of greater than 5 percent in that business if the legislator voted on that year’s section of the state budget bill dealing with that agency,” yet there has not been an investigation into this senator’s violation of the law.
Rather than acknowledge that the legislature is not capable of investigating its own members fairly, openly and without bias, the Senate continues to fight turning over the power to conduct these investigations and punish its own members to an independent entity. In a few days the Senate will vote on an amendment that would reconstitute the independent State Ethics Commission by adding legislative appointments. The new Commission will then be tasked with investigating complaints against lawmakers in addition to their current duties. The legislative committees will remain, and in fact, still have the authority to punish its members based on the findings of the Commission’s investigation.
In the end, unless anything is done to make this bill stronger, legislators will still be policed by other legislators, and if the investigations of former senators Knotts and Ford are any indication that the Senate Ethics Committee cannot punish its members fairly and openly, citizens will have just as much trust in their elected officials as they do now.