If one were to use a kind word to describe legislative ethics, it would be “wanting;” if one were to use an unkind word, one might use the word “farce.” Either way, it can be said that current ethics laws may not be up to the standards that citizens desire. There are many reasons for this systemic issue, but today we are going to focus on one particular aspect.
First, some background.
If one were to file a complaint against an individual legislator, one must first have some sort of evidence of wrongdoing. For example, evidence of lobbying on the side, pressuring other government entities, misusing their title, giving out confidential state information, or failing to disclose a conflict of interest would all be grounds for an ethics violation to be filed. The complaint would be filed with the chair of the Independent Legislative Ethics Commission and the chair would then decide if there is grounds for an investigation. This panel of former judges and former lawmakers would then hear the complaint and, if they felt there were sufficient grounds to proceed, move it on to the Senate and House Ethics Committee. These respective committees would then decide the final fate of the legislator in question.
As you can see, the process is a bit complex, and currently there are a number of additional hurdles that Senator Luz Robles (D – Salt Lake City, District 1) wishes to eliminate.
SJR 4 – Joint Resolution on Ethics Complaint Procedures does three basic things. First, it eliminates the current ban on any ethics complaint 60 days prior to an election; second, it eliminates the current gag order to disclose if a complaint has even been filed; and third, it removes the provision that automatically dismisses a complaint if someone does disclose that a complaint has been filed in.
Undoubtedly, these changes will be met with harsh opposition. One could easily argue that the ethics complaint procedure is purposefully convoluted because legislators are not keen on getting caught violating ethics laws – the more hoops are in the way, the more likely all but the most severe and obvious violations fly under the public’s radar. Opponents may further complain that eliminating the provision that a complaint can’t be filed two months prior to an election would open up the Independent Commission to campaign electioneering.
However, these complaints miss an important fact: the public needs to be informed. Automatic dismissals and gag orders on even the existence of a complaint fly counter to our regular justice system and seem illogical to the layman. If a complaint has been filed, the public should know. If complaints are banned 60 days prior to an election, we must ask how much the Legislature trusts the public to weed out fact from fiction, and electioneering from legitimate complaint. If the public trusts that the Independent Commission will execute its job properly, there should be no concern about who is accused and when – if a lawmaker is found not guilty, the public should follow.
Robles is attempting to open up a very close (and very distrusted) portion of our legislative process. The reach of these changes may be limited, but the effect it has on the public’s psyche is immeasurable.
Impact on the Average Utahn:
High Impact 5 . 4 . 3 . 2 . 1 . 0 No Impact
Necessary 5 . 4 . 3 . 2 . 1 . 0 Unnecessary
Great Bill 5 . 4 . 3 . 2 . 1 . 0 . -1 . -2 . -3 . -4 . -5 Poor Bill