Being Ethical

Being Ethical is an advice column for legislators by legislators, where a panel of current and former lawmakers weighs in on how to resolve ethical dilemmas.

November 2007

This "Being Ethical" is part two of a three-part series.  Watch for part three in the December State Legislatures Online Magazine.

QUESTION

I just finished my first legislative session.  I went through the new member and caucus orientations, attempted to get to know my colleagues and lobbyists, studied bills and generally participated as a rather quiet freshman.  But nothing prepared me for some of the situations I faced where I felt uncomfortable. 

Do I owe my campaign contributors anything?  Is it OK to form friendships with lobbyists?  Should I always keep my word to one of the my fellow legislators, even if I change my mind on a bill?  How much information should I give the press?  Should I always answer their questions honestly?  And sometimes my values conflict with those of my constituents.  I felt I recognized some problems after they went by me.  Help me prepare for next year's session.  What are some ethical pitfalls I should avoid?  KJB

In the last column, the panel answered two of his questions: Do I owe my campaign contributors anything? And, is it okay to form friendships with lobbyists?  

This month the panel gives advice on keeping your word to fellow legislators and how to deal with the press. In Part 3, the panel will discuss what to do if your values are different from your constituents and give advice for the upcoming session.  

Submit your own ethical dilemma.

Dick FinanDick Finan
Former Ohio Senate
President

Keeping your word probably is the most important principle that a legislator can have. When you gave your word without having all the facts, you made a typical freshmen mistake. Now, you must stick to your word with your fellow legislators. And don't do it again. Next time get the facts before you commit.

Yes, the press can ask awkward questions. They see it as part of their job. A "no comment" or "I'm not prepared to answer at this time" is better than a dishonest answer. Many times you can skirt the issue on a tough question. But if you lie to the press, they will be all over you. 

Deborah RossRepresentative Deborah Ross
North Carolina

It is okay to change your mind on an issue. However, relationships are important in the legislature, so inform your colleague when you change your mind. If you do not tell your colleague directly, you leave the impression that you were not truthful in the first place. This will affect your relationship with that member in the future.

You should never lie to the press. At the same time you are not obligated to answer all their questions. I’ve found that often it's better to answer the question you wish they asked. 

 

Dennis RichardsonRepresentative Dennis Richardson
Oregon

It’s common for legislators and lobbyists to want vote commitments. Experienced legislators keep careful notes in every bill file on what voting commitments they have made. A legislator’s word is his or her political capital. Yes, sometimes you change your mind. Your credibility and reputation can be maintained if you immediately inform those who have counted on your vote.

When dealing with the press, as well as everyone else, honesty is the best policy. The real question is how to answer a reporter’s difficult question. Telling a reporter “no comment” makes the legislator appear evasive. A good rule is to answer a reporter’s questions to the best of one’s ability, while emphasizing the points the legislator would have the audience remember.

RECAP

A few months ago, RG asked the panel if her national law firm should hire a sitting state legislator to lobby local government. State law allowed this employment, but the legislator would have to disclose any personal financial interest before voting on certain bills. The panel came at the problem from different angles, but agreed that they would not hire the legislator. Read the full ethical dilemma and the panel’s advice.

Follow Up

The panel’s advice reassured RG that her uncertainty about the hiring was valid. She advised the firm not to hire the legislator. The firm hired the person anyway. The legislator accepted the job and over the next few months began to understand the wisdom of the panel’s advice. He lost an important position on the budget committee and found himself looking over his shoulder more than once in sponsoring bills. He is considering resigning from the lobbyist position.

Submit an ethical dilemma.