Legislative Effectiveness Committee Meeting

December 9-10, 2010
Phoenix, AZ

 Meeting Session:

Ethics:  Becoming the Problem Solvers

Overview and Faculty:

We need to share information on how states successfully prevent or resolve ethical problems. With state legislatures varying from part-time to full-time status, ethical procedures and standards don’t come in a one-size-fits-all package. This session analyzed some of the procedures currently in place with an emphasis on examining how legislatures and legislators can avoid problems and work swiftly to solve the problems that do occur. 

Moderator: Peggy Kerns, Director, Center for Ethics in Government, Colorado 

Panelists: Senator Bruce Starr, Oregon

Senator Pamela Althoff, Illinois

Representative Mark Maddox, Tennessee

John Hurson, Executive Vice president, Personal Care products Council (former Maryland legislator and President of NCSL)


Peggy Kerns began the session by describing recent stories of legislative ethical scandals and violations. The public expects legislatures to deal swiftly and fairly with the problems that do occur and this session will address some of the procedures to assess and deal with accusations of legislative ethical misconduct. 

Senator Bruce Starr of Oregon related a misconduct accusation that has been used by opponents against him in several elections. He attended a conference in Hawaii for an association. While the trip was legal, he relied on information from the association executive director, a former legislative employee, that he did not have to file a report. Long after the fact the executive director called saying that Starr should file, which he belated did. Senator Starr admitted his mistake, paid a fine and explained that he had relied on bad advice. During subsequent elections, opponents tried to make a major scandal, but the senator was open about the mistake and sought to put it in a context that his constituents could understand. The major lesson learned was to independently check the ethical advice you receive, particularly from those currently out of the legislature.

John Hurson described the Maryland procedure, which has helped them deal with ethical allegations. The system has three prongs:

  • A state ethics commission covering all state employees. The commission gives advice on ethical issues and obtains yearly financial disclosures from those employees.
  • A joint ethics committee, staffed by nonpartisan employees, which may investigate members and hire outside counsel. The staffers work solely for this committee.
  • A yearly confidential review with each legislator to go over financial disclosures and potential ethics problems. Hurson particularly lauded this practice and mentioned that it likely would have helped Senator Starr in his situation.  The confidentiality aspect is critical, he noted.

Senator Althoff mentioned that her state of Illinois has received an incredible amount of attention for ethical misconduct, particularly in the executive branch. The legislature has provided ethical officers in each caucus, partisan staff who meet on a regular basis with legislators to provide advice. Illinois also provides for an ethics exam so that legislators are clear on what they may and may not do. One odd result is that with the recent governor’s misconduct, the legislature (where there was no problem) was under pressure to enact reforms. Reciting a theme from the other speakers, more stringent legislation doesn’t lead to better ethical behavior---clear legislative leadership and a procedure to provide periodic and confidential advice is much more likely to have a positive effect. 

Representative Maddox described some past scandals in Tennessee, which resulted in a special session focused on tighter ethics laws. Essentially they became a “no cup of coffee” state where lobbyists cannot provide members with anything of value. Both legislators and lobbyists need to take ethics training and they also have an ethics advisor available to legislators. While praising the availability of ethical advice, Representative Maddox lamented the impact these reforms have had on legislator socialization. Legislators just don’t get to know each other the way they used to and this hinders their ability to work through problems and build consensus. One of the challenges for legislators is to find new ways to build relationships under the current ethical restrictions.