Opinion

Why don’t senators want outside scrutiny?

Let’s hope that half of our senators simply consider public confidence in government unimportant, or else that they are incomprehensibly arrogant and self-absorbed. Or both. Because otherwise we’d have to conclude that they’re corrupt, or at least close enough to the edge that they are terrified that anyone who gets a chance to look over their shoulders will find something our senators don’t want found.

That part about looking over their shoulders is the most important thing to keep in mind after 25 senators voted a week ago to kill a plan to let an independent panel review their compliance with the ethics law: No one was proposing to take away senators’ authority to decide whether their colleagues violated the law. Please read that again: No one was proposing to take away senators’ authority to decide whether their colleagues violated the law.

The proposal that they defeated simply would have assigned the State Ethics Commission to investigate their compliance, and decide whether there was reason to hold a hearing. The Senate and House Ethics committees still would have held those hearings, and still would have been free to declare their colleagues innocent. Of course, they would have had to do that in public, and the investigative report would have been public.

Most of the 25 senators who voted to neuter S.1 say they are actually the ones who want reform, because they went on to vote for the neutered bill, while those who wanted independent review voted to kill it. Perhaps it makes them sleep better at night, believing that. But there simply is no legitimate reason not to have independent investigations, and every reason to have them – at least if you want the public to trust the government just a little bit. In fact, the people who are committed to reform were the 20 who voted against the neutering; most of them went on to vote against the neutered bill.

Want proof? The ring-leaders of the neutering, Senate President Pro Tempore Hugh Leatherman and Ethics Chairman Luke Rankin, argue that the current system works just fine. As evidence, they note that former House Speaker Bobby Harrell – the most prominent of many poster children for reform – wasn’t a senator (pause, to let that logic sink in), and that it was the Senate Ethics Committee’s investigation and hearing that led then-Sen. Robert Ford to resign in 2013, and plead guilty to Harrell-style crimes earlier this year.

What they won’t explain, because it is something that cannot be explained about a committee that does its work in secret, is how we know that the committee didn’t have other problem senators it declined to act against.

Many ethics neuterers will tell you they are happy to have independent review; they just wanted to create a separate body to review legislators instead of assigning that duty to the State Ethics Commission, which oversees statewide and local officials. Although that’s horribly duplicative and reeks of special treatment, it might not be a terrible solution, since the governor and the attorney general would appoint five of the nine members. Except: The other four members would be legislators.

If you’ve ever watched commissions made up of both elected officials and members of the public, you see the problem: No matter how many other people also serve on the commission, no matter who they are, everyone else defers to the elected officials.

I asked some reformers if they couldn’t just tweak that plan and have legislators appoint non-legislators to serve on the duplicative, special-treatment panel, and they said they offered, but got no takers. That’s because, as I noted in a recent column, legislators think of themselves as a persecuted minority, which faces challenges that the rest of us could not possibly understand; if outsiders must investigate them, they must be in the room to explain things to them.

The neuterers said they needed to create this new body because the State Ethics Commission can’t handle all of the work it has now, and besides, they’re not so sure about its competence.

And they’re right: The commission can’t handle its workload. That’s because the Legislature has refused to give it enough money to hire the investigators and auditors it needs to do the job. So that’s a problem that is entirely within the power of legislators to fix.

I also have questions about some of the commission’s decisions, but the plan that the neuterers defeated would have reconstituted the commission, allowing legislators to appoint half the members of its governing board; one presumes that the new board could have made some personnel changes.

I’m sure there are senators who would have been happy to allow the independent review but voted for the faux reform because that was the only way they could see to get past the ethics debate and move on to other matters they consider more important. But the fact is that the Senate could have passed a real reform bill and moved on to other matters if those senators, along with the ones who supported independent investigations, had been willing to force a vote, rather than allowing the debate to drag on interminably. They weren’t, and that makes them complicit.

All this matters not just from a standpoint of accountability. The Senate agreed to a parliamentary maneuver on Thursday that allows the ethics bill to be revived if supporters can get the votes for reform. That gives the co-conspirators a chance to redeem themselves. If they want to be part of a government that serves the public instead of those who govern – and I am absolutely certain that at least a few of them do – they need to seize that opportunity.

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