Legislative Effectiveness Committee
Meeting Summary

Louisville, KY
July 2010

Meeting Session:  Real Life Ethics Cases

Overview and Faculty:

(Co-sponsored by the Women’s Legislative Network and the American Society of Legislative Clerks and Secretaries)

State legislatures have faced a number of crises with ethics-related cases in the past year.  Legislative leaders explored the lessons they learned in dealing with these challenges and gave their advice on the best ways to avoid or respond to problems.

Facilitator:  Peggy Kerns, Director, Center for Ethics in Government, NCSL, Colorado

Panelists: Anthony Wilhoit, Executive Director, Legislative Ethics Commission, Kentucky

Representative B. Patrick Bauer, Speaker of the House, Indiana

Representative David Clark, Speaker of the House, Utah

Representative David Ralston, Speaker of the House, Georgia

Summary:

Peggy Kerns began the session describing a recent survey showing that a strong ethical culture is the best defense to ethical scandals and violations. Legislative leaders set the tone and expectations for a legislature and that permeates down to the rest of the legislators. While ethics laws and rules are important, good leadership and peer pressure are vital in creating an ethical legislature.  

Speaker David Clark emphasized that each legislative district has a culture, and legislators need to understand and respect that. The expectations for ethical conduct are high and those expectations help build an ethical foundation for the legislature. He identified a lack of self-discipline as being at the core of many legislative ethical problems and leaders need to stress the importance of everyone maintaining this trait. In terms of reform, Speaker Clark created an eight-part program (with categories like training, gift law changes and increased disclosures for members and candidates). 

Speaker David Ralston described taking over the speakership in the wake of an ethical scandal. At the start, the atmosphere was unsettled and people were looking for direction. He was in a position where he had to lead changes to both the laws and the culture. As he proceeded, he made sure to stress transparency and openness in every step he took. In part, he focused on the House’s internal operating rules, seeking changes such as to allow the media on the House floor. Also, he established a pattern of more and more regular communication, both with the media and with members, in seeking ethics changes. He was conscious that this effort very much involved creating a different tone and atmosphere. Lastly, Speaker Ralston emphasized how a leader needs to seek balance in ethics reform. Some will see no problems and some will suggest radical changes. A leader has to have a sense of priorities and knowledge of what changes will actually promote ethical behavior. 

Judge Tony Wilhoit talked about the Kentucky experience creating a legislative ethics commission. A serious ethics scandal had led to a tough new ethics code. Legislators felt like the new code prevented them from doing much of anything. Judge Wilhoit strove to create a commission that was primarily advisory, which could head off trouble before it happened. They do pursue violations, but he made sure to create an expectation that the commission existed to help well-meaning legislators avoid embarrassing or improper situations, not a “gotcha” body bent on making legislators look bad. Legislators were skeptical at first, but with the commission’s consistent emphasis on education and advice, they earned trust. Judge Wilhoit noted how important it was for his commission to have the support of legislative leadership, especially with regard to not making ethics a partisan issue. He also urged states to consider lots of “sunshine” in their ethical laws. Kentucky follows an approach of releasing the evidence even if an investigation does not result in probable cause to proceed with prosecution. This has been vital in building credibility with the public and the press.  

Speaker Patrick Bauer mentioned that there was no ethics scandal that helped prompt ethics reform in Indiana. He cited the bi-partisan agreements in backing ethics reform and the discipline not to pass amendments demonizing the other party as being crucial to their success. Both the Speaker and the Minority Leader were sponsors of the ethics bill, putting them “on the line” for ethics reform. It sent a message that this reform was serious business.